COLUMBUS – It’s rare when a team with just two losses in 39 games comes into a state semifinal as an underdog.
That was the position St. Ignatius was in Thursday, facing the defending state champions, who had won 36 of 37 games including a head-to-head meeting.
Once the game started, St. Ignatius looked anything but an underdog. The Wildcats stormed out to a 3-0 first period lead on the way to a 5-1 rout of St. Francis.
By avenging one of its two regulation losses, St. Ignatius advanced to Saturday’s state championship game against University School.
Two shots that don’t normally find their way behind St. Francis goalie Kade Phipps gave St. Ignatius an early 2-0 lead.
At 6:59 of the first, Aidan Spellacy threw a pass through the slot. It deflected off of a St. Francis player and ended up in the net for a 1-0 Wildcat lead.
Just 31 seconds later, a long pass ended up to Phipps’ left at the confluence of the goal line and the boards. Seth Whitney got to the puck first and blasted a shot from the impossible angle. It ended up in the back of the net as well, and St. Ignatius led 2-0.
“It always helps when you’re trying to pull upsets to score first and get a little bit of confidence,” St. Ignatius Head Coach Pat O’Rourke said. “They were pretty fluky goals to be honest with you. We threw pucks on net from anywhere. We had some lucky breaks. Today just happened to be our day.”
The back breaker for St. Francis came in the final two minutes of the first. Spellacy fed a nice pace through to Zach Kisel, who made a deke and slid the puck between Phipps’ pads. With 1:20 left in the first, St. Ignatius led 3-0.
“They capitalized on their opportunities,” St. Francis Head Coach Chris Varga said. “It’s a shame. You work so hard. A couple bounces can go the other way and your season is over.”
Despite using the term upset, O’Rourke indicated that his team felt slighted despite its record.
“We’re a good team too,” O’Rourke said. “All we heard about what this St. Francis team, and they’re very good. We’re pretty good too. I’d compare them to the Golden State Warriors, and we’re maybe the Spurs. We’ve got some titles under our belt.
“They were number one all year long, and they won it last year, so we kind of played up the underdog card a little bit.”
After falling 5-1 to St. Francis in the first meeting of the season, St. Ignatius flipped the script Thursday in the state semifinal.
“In that first game, a couple of their goals were technical problems on our part,” O’Rourke said. “I’d call it bad coaching in the first game and this game I’d call it good playing. It definitely wasn’t coaching. We just played hard.
“I don’t know if we could beat them in a best-of-seven series, but we beat them today.”
It’s a tough end to the season for St. Francis after losing just one regular season game. The defending state champions fell two wins shy of repeating.
“You’ve got to be ready to play every night,” Varga said. “Sometimes, you play hard and you don’t win. It’s tough being the last game of the season, you end with an L instead of a W.”
Varga said the ending of the season didn’t change the fact that it was a tremendous year for the Knights.
“Bottom line is, we had a great time,” Varga said. “What a rollercoaster. I’m just proud of the guys. It’s one heck of a family. It’s one of the best teams I’ve ever coached in my 20 years as a coach. This memory will never go – it was that special of a group of young men.”
For St. Ignatius, it’s a return to the state title game for the first time since the infamous seven-overtime game of 2014. The Wildcats were forced to share the state title with Sylvania Northview then, but that is no longer a possibility.
O’Rourke was pleased that a tie is no longer in the equation thanks to the new overtime rules that limits games to five overtimes before a shootout.
“It’s very nice,” O’Rourke said. “That ate at me for months and months and months. It really did. We have a chance to validate that if we win on Saturday.”
St. Ignatius wants to return to Cleveland with the title to exorcise the remaining demons of that instant classic. This includes McKeon, who started that seven-overtime game in net and made 31 saves.
“I think it will be off my shoulders if we win on Saturday,” McKeon said.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
@ Nationwide Arena, Columbus
St. Ignatius 5, St. Francis 1
SI – 3 – 1 – 1 – 5
SF – 0 – 0 – 1 – 1
FIRST PERIOD: Scoring – 1, St. Ignatius, Aidan Spellacy (unassisted), 6:59. 2, St. Ignatius, Seth Whitney (Jared Stepka) 7:30. 3, St. Ignatius, Zachary Kisel (Aidan Spellacy) 13:40. Penalties – Lucas Edinger, St. Francis (Tripping) 2:02; Kyle Bloom, St. Francis (Slashing) 6:31; St. Ignatius (Too many men) 8:51. SECOND PERIOD: Scoring – 4, St. Ignatius, Seth Whitney (unassisted) 3:03. Penalties – Warren Natyshak, St. Francis (Hooking) 14:36. THIRD PERIOD: Scoring – 5, St. Ignatius, Cullen Frebes (Bain Kurtz, Matthew Wiegandt) 2:53. 6, St. Francis, Warren Natyshak (Brendan Furry, Matt Vild) 8:06. Penalties – Dylan McKeon, St. Ignatius (Tripping) 4:38; Cameron Cook, St. Ignatius (Minor penalty) 8:01; Jay Denman, St. Francis (Minor penalty) 8:01; Dylan McKeon, St. Ignatius (Minor penalty) 8:01; Matt Zoepke, St. Francis (Elbowing) 10:42; Matt Vild, St. Francis (Roughing) 11:59.
Shots on goal: St. Ignatius 12 – 13 – 7 – 32. St. Francis 9 – 11 – 14 – 34. Power plays: St. Ignatius 1 for 5, 3 shots. St. Francis 1 for 4, 4 shots. Goalies: St. Ignatius, Dylan McKeon (34 shots-33 saves). St. Francis, Kade Phipps (32 shots-27 saves). T: 1:51.
Matt covers high school sports for the News Journal. Follow him on Twitter @mattsports.