Sometimes, when a team lacks big-game experience, a coach has to get a little creative.
So Shenendehowa coach Juan de la Rocha pulled out all the stops this week as he prepared the Plainsmen for tonight’s Section II Division I championship game against defending champion Saratoga Springs.
On Tuesday, he had the Plainsmen (17-4-1) practice at Union College, the site of tonight’s championship gme, which begins at 7 p.m.
Then, he brought in a guest speaker.
“I had Bryan Hunter come back and talk to the kids,” said de la Rocha. “We had practice at Union, and then I had him talk to them for about 15 minutes, about what it’s like to play in a game like this, what to expect. He should know; he went to four of those.”
Hunter played for the Plainsmen from 2004-08, helping the Plainsmen win four straight Section II crowns.
Of the 12 seniors on Shenendehowa’s roster, not one has played in a sectional championship game.
“The ones whow ere on the team as freshmen were practice players. We’ve got no big-game experience,” said de la Rocha.
But the one thing they will have tonight is senior Matt Dempsey.
Dempsey, the team’s leading scorer (18-19-37), missed the last game of the regular season and the first game of the sectionals with a shoulder injury. He was back in uniform last weekend for the semifinals, but saw limited action.
“He’s 100 percent now,” said de la Rocha. “He didn’t get too involved against CBA [a 5-1 win in the semifinals]. Once we for up by a couple of goals, I kept him off the ice.”
Although the Plainsmen won the regular-season championship in the Capital District High School Hockey league to earn the No. 1 seed, de la Rocha things the pressure will be on the Blue Streaks.
“We worked hard to get the No. 1 seed, but I think the pressure has to be on them,” de la Rocha said. “They’re the ones with something to defend.”
The Streaks (19-2-1), who defeated the Plainsmen twice during the regular season, had all the pressure they could handle in the semifinals, when they struggled to a 6-4 victory over Bethlehem. Saratoga goalie Tyler Ellor let in goals on two of the first three shots he faced, and the Streaks struggled defensively all night.
But the offense bailed the defense out.
“If we didn’t have the offense clicking, we would have lost them game,” said coach Mike Ricupero, who led the Blue Streaks to the state championship game last year. “As much as you try to avoid games like that, sometimes, they happen. As much as the defense struggled, the offense was good. I just hope both show up Thursday.”
Offense is Saratoga’s strong point. Junior Alex Luse (20-19-39) and senior Dan Going (22-15-37) are the leading scorers, but goals can come from anywhere.
“Look at the last game,” said Ricupero. “Alex had two, but we got scoring from a lot of other guys. Jimmy Murray had one, Luke Fauler had one, Dan Going had one, Devon Smith had one. It was really spread out.”
But Ricupero also knows his team will have to play good defense to control the Plainsmen.
“If we limit their opportunities, and keep them to the outside and let our goalie see the puck and make long saves, we’ll have a better chance to win.”
Saratoga is riding a 11-game unbeaten streak (10-0-1). The last time the Streaks were on the losing end of a game was on Jan. 7, a 5-2 setback at the hands of Gates-Chili.
The two teams have played for the Section II title five times. Saratoga, which is ranked No. 4 in the state, won three straight from 1998-2000, and fifth-ranked Shenendehowa took two in a row in 2003-03.
And with the state tournament format the way it is, only the winner advances.
“There needs to be a sense of urgency,” said de la Rocha. “Our goal all year was to put ourselves in this position. We have championship photos on the wall of our lockerroom, and I told the guys, ‘If you want your picture on the wall, you have to figure out a way to beat Saratoga.’ ”
“It’s all about now,” said Ricupero. “You lose, and you go home.”