Moments after West High’s hockey players spilled over the bench to skate over and pile on top of victorious goaltender Gunnar Bergo, career and technical education teacher Justin Syzymanski passed out unique tokens of achievement and celebration.
The white towels featured a picture of a black WWE-style professional wrestling title belt filled with pertinent information. On it were images of the state of Alaska, the orange West Anchorage “A”, an eagle, the school’s name and 2024 Champions, most importantly.
A short time later, senior Henry Sholton used his towel to apply pressure to his bloodied right hand.
“Very fortunate to have (the towel), very fortunate,” said Sholton after also receiving medical attention. “Yeah, I think I saw bone, but still, I feel great.”
Playing the game of your life has a way of shielding physical pain.
Sholton scored twice and assisted on Joseph Dittich’s eventual game-winning goal Saturday night at Wasilla’s Menard Center. His efforts along with his teammates resulted in a fantastic 3-2 win over rival Dimond before an estimated crowd of 2,800.
ASAA/First National Cup
41th Division I Hockey State Championships
Jason McKenna, Dimond
Sterling Myers, Wasilla
Fischer Sims, Chugiak
Austin Keim, West
Andrew Sturgeon, Dimond
Cole Schmidt, South
Aidan Finch, Colony
Henry Sholton, West
Gunnar Bergo, West
Mason Holler, Wasilla
Joe Christiansen, Dimond
Evan Fitzgerald, West
With its 11 seniors, West won the Division I First National Cup title for the fifth time in school history (2010, 2015, 2016, 2020 and 2024) and after losing to Chugiak last season. They did so by beating its Cook Inlet Conference rival for the fourth time in four tries this season.
The Eagles finished with a 19-3-1 record.
“All I saw out in front of me tonight was a championship coming our way,” said Bergo, who finished with 16 saves and was named to the all-state tournament team. “It all traces directly to our senior leadership.”
Sholton said he received the cuts to his hand when sophomore Reed Bott’s skate clipped him during the jam pile at game’s end. He indeed seemed in good spirits regardless of the injury’s severity all while putting the commemorative towel to good use.
Eagles coach Rob Larkey used his towel to dry off after his players emptied water bottles all over him. He’s only coached for parts of 10 seasons, but he started at East back in the 90s and won state titles (1995 and 1997).
Larkey met near center ice with veteran Dimond coach Dennis Sorenson, who completed his 33rd season guiding the Lynx. Ferociously competitive, Sorenson will always tell you “losing sucks.” But Larkey got Sorenson to smile and even laugh a little during the brief exchange.
“(Sorenson) really brought that team a long way,” Larkey said.
Because Sorenson’s own players tossed around the word retirement a few times during the season, he was asked if Saturday’s game, the 848th of his storied career, would be his last.
“This season,” Sorenson said.
What about next season, potentially No. 34?
“No comment,” he replied.
West outscored Dimond 19-5 in the teams’ first three meetings. The Lynx (12-7-1) finished fourth in the CIC tournament, third in the regular season but clawed their way to the program’s 21st First National Cup final appearance. Bolstered by 13 seniors, they beat Colony and Wasilla during state’s first two rounds before putting forth the best effort of the season against West.
“Of course it was,” Bergo said of Dimond’s performance. “Everyone wants to win the championship.”
Sholton and Dimond senior Tyson Jones exchanged first-period goals.
West staked itself to a 2-1 lead at the :32 mark of the second period. On the power play, Sholton came out of the offensive zone right corner untouched and snaked a shot through the legs of Dimond senior goalie Zoie Campbell (23 saves).
A misplayed rebound allowed West sophomore Joseph Dittrich to up the advantage to 3-1 at 11:16 of the second.
The Eagles locked it down for most of an anti-climactic third period. Up until Dimond pulled Campbell and senior Chase Mathews scored with 26.7 remaining, the third lacked suspenseful juice. In fact, the most entertainment was provided by the chirp-a-thon between seniors Malachi Lachance of West and Andrew Sturgeon of Dimond. You couldn’t help but overhear them loudly exchange pleasantries.
The clock eventually ran out on Dimond’s comeback attempt.
“The moment was obviously very important to us,” said Dimond senior Joe Christiansen. “We were doing everything we could, and it was an awesome game.”
The time came for Sholton and his West teammates to let loose, while he still applied pressure to his hand. Thanks, towel.
“It’s special,” Sholton said. “I’ve been with these boys for four years now. After losing last year’s championship and getting back to win it now, it’s such a great feeling.”
— Anchorage HS Hockey (@CIC_Hockey) February 11, 2024
WASILLA 2, SOUTH 0
Wasilla senior goalie Jordan Pfile turned in a 29-save shutout performance as the Warriors earned third place with a 2-0 win over South.
Seniors Sterling Myers and Mason Holler scored Wasilla’s goals. Holler’s score came on a clean breakaway at 8:40 of the third. After Friday’s semifinal loss to Dimond, Holler said he and the Warriors found its motivation for the consolation game.
“Senior year, you can’t come out light,” said Holler, one of 11 Wasilla seniors. “We wanted to end this thing with a bang.”
Wasilla finished 18-5-1. South senior stalwart Cole Schmidt made 22 saves in net for the Wolverines (12-7-1).
“We had our best shot this season,” Holler said. “We just tried to end the best we could.”
In a fitting scene that looks ahead to Anchorage hosting the USA Hockey Pacific District Tier I 16U and 18U championship tournament later this month, Holler and South senior C.J. Heiner swapped jerseys and posed for pictures near center ice. The duo gave the sweaters back to one another before they and other players who will represent Team Alaska at nationals also had pictures taken.
— Anchorage HS Hockey (@CIC_Hockey) February 11, 2024
COLONY 5, CHUGIAK 4 OT
A bonkers final minute of regulation paved the way for Colony senior Aidan Finch’s overtime game winner.
Finch scored at 7:11 of OT to lift the Knights to a 5-4 fifth-place game victory. Before that transpired, Colony senior Isaac McKenizie scored at 14:11 of the third. Chugiak sophomore Edmund Thies answered at 14:50 to send the tied (3-3) game to overtime.
Colony finished the season 16-7-1. Defending-champ Chugiak wrapped with a 11-9-1 mark.
Colony 5 Chugiak 4 OT. Colony finishes 4th in State and Chugiak 6th. Tough to figure out the goalies/saves on this sheet. Also the last 2 Chugiak goals had to be PPG. @sportsadn @AKSportsReport @KTUUSports pic.twitter.com/rwI6q44jtM
— Anchorage HS Hockey (@CIC_Hockey) February 10, 2024
HOCKEY’S OFFSEASON ARRIVES WITH QUESTIONS
As high school hockey ended its five months of entertainment, the Alaska School Activities Association, member schools and everyone associated with the sport trapse into an intriguing offseason. Questions arise outside the murky political and education funding landscape.
Of ASAA’s estimated 215 schools spread throughout all corners of the state, only 23 play hockey. This season, East (Anchorage) and Lathrop didn’t field teams and instead co-opted with neighboring schools, Bartlett and West Valley. Regardless, ASAA hosted two First National Cup state tournaments, featuring 16 of the 21 official teams (76%). Student enrollment and classifications are worthy factors, but a better way to celebrate the sport’s history dating back to its 1958 start in Anchorage must exist.
“A lot of the sports that are more urban based like hockey, football, soccer, we’re just going to have the vast number (of schools) like with basketball, wrestling or cross country,” said ASAA executive director Billy Strickland, who’s celebrating a decade on the job. “It’s finding that sweet spot between wanting an athlete to earn the right to appear in a state tournament. We’re probably going to err on the side of inviting too many as opposed to too few.”
Let’s give a stick salute to the Houston Hawks for winning the DII First National Cup title two weeks ago in Soldotna, their third since the classification officially debuted in 2018. It was the program’s ninth when including the 1A/2A/3A division and Greatland Conference which date back to late 1990s, and originally featured the smallest of Alaska’s small hockey-playing schools. For the four previous seasons, the DII champ, the winning school with an enrollment of 850 or fewer students, was considered for an at-large DI berth.
Houston didn’t get that consideration after ASAA’s board of directors amended the rule in May of last year. And while some feelings remain raw about the change, it’s worth noting no other high school sport allows a state champion in one classification to play in a second state tournament at a higher level.
“The two state tournaments, yeah, I get that,” Houston coach Lane Styers said. “But I guess the counter to that is do we want to have the best on best or not?”
It’s fair to argue ASAA’s mistakes in allowing the DI participation of DII champs Palmer (2019), Homer (2020), Houston (2022) and Soldotna (2023).
Still, Styers is proud of the current Hawks.
“Absolutely, I’m happy with what happened because I was part of the most incredible team,” Styers said of the 2024 DII title. “Our players are happy and we’re not still sulking. We’re all thrilled with the way we did it.”
Styers said he and other DII coaches would like to see the rule reestablished. It’s a fact that a single classification for hockey wouldn’t help the viability of the smallest schools like Healy’s Tri-Valley and its 41 students or Monroe Catholic (109).
But a compromise should be considered.
“What resonated with the board was allowing one school two opportunities while excluding another one,” Strickland said. “A DII school that feels it’s one of the top eight teams, they can also opt up.
“Yes, we need more DI (hockey) teams. But one of the tough things for sports is we only really have that one community (Anchorage) that produces an enrollment of 1,200-up.”
- West senior defensive duo Evan Fitzgerald and Austin Keim along with Holler were named to the all-tournament for a second consecutive year.
- The Anchorage Hockey Association once again deserves credit for spearheading the second unofficial girls state tournament. The action concluded Saturday at Ben Boeke Arena with Dimond/West defeating Chugiak/Eagle River, 2-1. In terms of girls hockey ever getting an ASAA-sanctioned state event, Strickland intimated the numbers just aren’t there for players state-wide. The Anchorage School District’s eight schools combine into four teams. He did applaud AHA’s effort to grow the sport and welcomed the weekend’s non-ASAA championship competition.
- Campbell’s DI state championship game appearance marked the first for a female goalie since South’s Hannah Hogenson in 2020. Hogenson stopped 17 shots in the Wolverines’ 4-3 double-overtime loss to West. Abigail Blevins teamed with Campbell to guard Dimond’s net throughout the season. All-CIC junior Caylin Jones and senior River Scott shared Chugiak’s goaltending duties.