UTICA — They had survived all kinds of post-season tests, among them an overtime thriller in the sectional final and facing New York’s top-ranked team in the state quarterfinal. On Sunday, March 13, the young men of McQuaid Jesuit had only one mountain left to climb.
With a ferocious second-period burst, the Knights turned that mountain into a molehill. They stormed a 7-3 win over Baldwinsville in the state Class A championship game at Utica Memorial Auditorium, earning the program’s first-ever state hockey title and posting a final record of 19-4-4.
Al Vyverberg, the 18th-year McQuaid coach, said he had never expected such a feat due to the graduation of several players from last year’s sectional champion club that finished 21-2-1. In fact, the 2004-05 roster contained only four seniors.
“I’m floating now, floating,” an emotional Vyverberg said shortly after the Baldwinsville win.
An unlikely star from this youth movement is eighth-grade goaltender Nick BonDurant. Not only had he thought himself a long shot to be the starting goalie this year, but he said he considered himself “lucky to be on the team.” Talk about a rapid maturing process: In the state final he saved 26 of 29 shots, including two huge stops on Baldwinsville’s Bobby Conklin from point-blank range. They were key parts of a momentum-turning second period that saw McQuaid score four of five goals for a 5-2 lead.
“I came up with some big saves, and we got some lucky bounces,” BonDurant said.
But as they say, you make your own luck. Consider the three goals scored by junior forward Ryan Flanigan. He gave McQuaid a 1-0 lead 2 minutes, 32 seconds into the game by scooping up a loose puck near the goal mouth, then calmly setting it down and flicking it past goalie Kirk Kwaczala. Conklin made it 1-1 with 8:49 left in the first, and Knight sophomore forward Mike Cieslak scored for a 2-1 lead with 13:14 remaining in the second. Then Flanigan tipped a shot from junior defender Dan Reed that found the goal off the top crossbar, making it 3-1 with 10:41 to go. The advantage swelled to 4-1 when Flanigan scored shorthanded on a great feed from junior forward Brandon Nunn with 6:05 left, chasing Kwaczala from the game. Just before that play, Flanigan had lost his stick and went to the McQuaid bench for another one — which inadvertently put him in position for Nunn’s pass.
Baldwinsville’s Ben Blujus made it 4-2 with 2:56 to go in the second, but exactly a minute later Cieslak put the Knights up 5-2 by fighting through two defenders and beating replacement goalie Dan Neer.
Asked whether the second period was his team’s best of the season, Flanigan replied, “Considering what was at stake, yes. We capitalized on all of our opportunities.”
Any hope of a Bee comeback was doused with 8:59 left in the game, as Nunn made it 6-2 for the Knights. Baldwinsville’s Kevin McCarey scored with 2:10 left before Cieslak joined Flanigan in the hat-trick department by scoring with 1:20 to go.
The win over Baldwinsville, a Section 3 school, completed a dominating Frozen Four weekend that saw the Knights also earn a 5-1 victory over Section 2’s Shenendehowa in semifinal play one day earlier. McQuaid got two goals from Flanigan and one each from Cieslak, Nunn and Nick Gollaher while BonDurant made 25 saves.
Prior to the Frozen Four, McQuaid had earned a 2-1 quarterfinal win over Section 3’s Oswego, the state’s top-ranked team, on March 5 as Nunn scored with just 25 seconds remaining to break a 1-1 tie.
McQuaid had gotten into the state quarterfinal with a 7-2 win over Gates-Chili in a local qualifier game on Feb. 23. It followed a heart-stopping Section 5 Class A final that saw the Knights edge top-seeded Irondequoit, 3-2, on Feb. 19. That contest was decided by a shootout after four scoreless overtimes, making it the longest title game in sectional history. Two days earlier McQuaid had earned a 4-1 semifinal win over a tough Aquinas Institute club; the second-seeded Little Irish finished with a 16-4-2 record.
So high did the Knights fly at the Frozen Four that some exuberant players skated off the ice on March 13 voicing their desire to play for a national title. But since no such tournament exists at the high-school level, the Knights will be quite content with a state crown.
Meanwhile, Vyverberg spent several minutes exchanging hugs with players, family and well-wishers. Yet the veteran coach said his greatest satisfaction is not derived from personal achievement.
“I feel great for the players. No one can ever take that away from them — they’re state champs,” he said.