The smallest sliver of doubt, likely surprise more than anything, briefly crept into the minds of Dimond High’s hockey players in the latter stages of Tuesday’s first period.
After scoring once 25 seconds into play and again about 10 minutes later, the Lynx appeared ready to shift into Cook Inlet Conference cruise control. But Bartlett junior Curtis Siems cut the deficit in half, 2-1, at the 12 minute, 33 second mark.
How dare Siems and the Golden Bears show such temerity?
“All we could do was make sure to keep our heads up and in the game,” said Dimond senior Dylan Ford.
Celebrating his 18th birthday, Ford responded with two goals in 26 seconds, teammate Ethan Haimes added another 55 seconds later, and the Lynx properly reset themselves.
Dimond eventually skated to a 16-2 victory over Bartlett in the quarterfinals of the 55th CIC tournament at Ben Boeke Arena. Dimond claimed its third lopsided win of the season versus the Golden Bears, won its fourth straight, ninth in 10 and secured a Division I state tournament berth for the 27th consecutive season.
Yet, the Lynx felt funky for a moment after Bartlett’s first goal. Whether or not they needed it, they were reminded of a valuable lesson.
“You can’t ever underestimate teams,” said Dimond senior co-captain Andrew Sturgeon, who scored his team’s first goal and added two assists. “You never know who’s coming to play that night and who is not.”
Junior Dane Connick paced the offense with two goals and three assists. Senior Joe Christiansen, senior Blake McCade and sophomore Jensen Shafer all totaled four points. Junior goaltender Abigail Blevins stopped all six shots she faced in half a game’s work and was credited with an assist on Christian Maxson’s second-period goal, Dimond’s ninth.
The Lynx improved to 10-4-1. They also delivered coach Dennis Sorenson, he of 33 seasons behind the bench, his 626th career win.
South took care of Service, 9-1, in the tournament’s other quarterfinal played at Eagle River’s McDonald Center.
Metalheads know the Big 4 to be Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer. With deference to the pure majesty of those bands, the CIC’s top quartet has rocked its way through much of the season.
After Tuesday’s postseason play, regular-season winner West, defending DI First National Cup champ Chugiak, Dimond and South sport a combined 25-1-0 record against the league’s bottom three squads (Service, Bartlett and Eagle River). High school hockey in the Anchorage School District definitely has its dividing line.
To wit, West awaits South in Thursday’s tournament semifinal at Boeke. The Eagles won 2-0 and 4-3 in the regular season. A seventh overtime was needed before the Wolverines secured a 4-3 victory when the teams met in last season’s CIC semis. Dimond and Chugiak will square off at the McDonald Center on Thursday. The Lynx and Mustangs split their regular-season matchups.
“It’s going to be a big game and it will really mean something to us,” said Sturgeon, who confirmed everyone recalibrates their thinking when the postseason arrives. “We have to be locked in and ready to go.
“Something is really on the line now. We’ve got to have each other’s back.”
The CIC’s semifinalists are guaranteed spots at DI state, Feb. 8-10 in Wasilla. Service and Bartlett still possess realistic shots to make the eight-team state bracket as an at-large participant. The Cougars and Golden Bears will play the league tournament’s fifth-place game on Friday.
On Monday, Bartlett downed Eagle River 8-4 to kick off the tournament. The Golden Bears improved to 3-15-0, the three wins matching the combined total of the last eight seasons. The CIC tournament win is believed to be the program’s first since 2000, also the last time it appeared at state.
“It meant a lot,” said Bartlett senior goalie Brayley Bill.
Bill started playing hockey only two years ago – hockey, not goalie. He always loved the game and wanted to give it a try, a mindset that fits right into Bartlett’s superlative “grow the game and get involved” mentality. While not quite there yet with the natural maneuverability of a seasoned vet, Bill impressed numerous times on his way to making 23 saves against Dimond.
He gloved Christiansen’s slapper from the right circle only three seconds into Tuesday’s game.
“You’ve always got to keep that attitude,” Bill said. “No matter what, just concentrate on making that next save.”
— Anchorage HS Hockey (@CIC_Hockey) January 31, 2024
SOUTH 9, SERVICE 1
Bryce Webb scored the decisive goal in the seventh overtime to beat West almost a year ago. Tuesday night, the junior defenseman posted a hat trick in the quarterfinal victory over Service.
Senior Brody Melocik also scored twice as South improved to 9-5-1. Service fell to 6-13-0.
The Wolverines outshot the Cougars, 27-15. South senior goalie Cole Schmidt was credited with 14 saves.
— Anchorage HS Hockey (@CIC_Hockey) January 31, 2024
- West junior forward Paul Dittrich and South’s Schmidt owned the CIC regular season. Dittrich led the seven-team circuit in points (9-23—32), assists (23) and points per conference game (2.67). Schmidt topped the list in league minutes played (547), shutouts (6), goals-against average (1.22, minimum 300 minutes) and save percentage (.927). The Chugiak duo of senior River Scott (.921) and senior Caylin Jones (.920) finished second and third, respectively.
- Christiansen scored 20 goals in conference games to lead the league. Chugiak senior Fischer Sims led with three short-handed goals. Bartlett junior Bradley Sievers racked up a CIC-high 54 penalty minutes in only nine games. On the goaltending front, West junior Gunnar Bergo won a conference-best 10 games. Eagle River senior Tyler Offenbacker recorded a league-high 374 saves, averaging 34 stops in his 11 games.
- No CIC team played the maximum 22 regular-season games for myriad reasons – inclement weather being one example. Service and West managed to get in league-high 18 contests before the postseason. File this away as a potential future option if the league once again features seven teams, an 18-game conference schedule with three games against each rival. Scheduling only four nonconference games would seem a much easier task.
- In its 2023-24 handbook, the Alaska School Activities Association lists 23 hockey-playing schools. Of the 12 listed for DI (851-plus student enrollment), East (Anchorage) and Lathrop didn’t field teams this season and are co-opting with other programs. So, it seems a bit watered down to see 16 of the 21 on-ice squads vying for two separate state titles (DI and DII). Single classification or some sort of hybrid would be much more logical in the state’s current state, eh?
- The 12 DI hockey schools’ average student enrollment is 1,219. The average is 435 for the 11 DII schools. West is the largest school with 1,764 students. Healy’s Tri-Valley houses only 41 students.
- The last single-classification state tournament came in 1996 and was won by Service. The next season, Monroe Catholic won the first Greatland Conference crown in what in 2018 became the DII First National Cup state tournament. Starting Thursday in Soldotna, the Stars play host to DII state and will look to repeat as champions for schools with student enrollment of 850 or fewer. Eight of 11 DII teams make up the field, including eight-time champion Houston and 2019 title winner, Palmer. Houston sported a 4-1-2 regular-season record against DI opponents. For the first time since 2019, the DII champ won’t have the option of participating at DI state after concerns were raised about one team receiving two separate state-tournament opportunities.