South’s Austin Wiita and West’s Henry Sholton race for the puck. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Despite the annual critiques espoused right about now towards the Division I First National Cup state hockey tournament bracket, one fact can’t be questioned.

In the days leading up to games being played at Wasilla’s Menard Center, nobody should have a higher opinion of themselves than the South High Wolverines, who bounced back from an early season slump to win the Cook Inlet Conference championship.

Saturday night at jam-packed Ben Boeke Arena, the Wolverines continued their rebound of a season with a 2-0 win over Chugiak in the title game of the 55th CIC tournament.

What did South receive for earning its eighth tournament title and fourth in seven seasons? A rematch with the Mustangs in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

The Alaska School Activities Association on Sunday completed the unenviable task of determining state quarterfinal berths along with seeding, bracketing and game times. This is the 41st state tournament, with Service winning the first title in 1983 and the pandemic canceling the 2021 edition.

The 2024 combatants are South (11-5-1), defending-champion Chugiak (10-7-1), Colony (14-6-1), Dimond (10-6-1, 29th consecutive berth), Service (6-14-0), Wasilla (16-4-1), West (16-3-1) and West Valley (4-10-1).

Kind of makes you wonder why the CIC even bothered playing a tournament after the regular season while the three Northern Lights Conference teams sat idle last week.

In Saturday’s CIC tournament final, South senior goaltender Cole Schmidt made 17 saves for the shutout and stood especially tall as the final buzzer sounded, pumping both arms high above his head as teammates mobbed him in the crease.

“A pretty good feeling, something we worked for all season,” said Schmidt, whose freshman brother Vance scored South’s first goal in the second period. “We came into this with a lot of anticipation, and it was a fun tournament.”

Sophomore JC Greenwood notched the Wolverines’ second goal at 12:06 of the third. Chugiak junior goalie Caylin Jones impressed with 31 saves. Cole Schmidt and Jones were the two goalies named to the all-CIC team.

South upset regular-season winner West in the tournament semifinals on Thursday. Including a forfeit victory, the Wolverines have won six straight and eight of nine. The current success is nearly enough to forgot about 13 days in December when they slogged through a 1-4-1 stretch.

“Everyone kind of canceled us,” said South captain Austin Wiita, who assisted on the first goal Saturday. “I think a lot of guys realized it could be their final year of (high school) and started playing well.

“We carried on, really started to care and came to the rink each day ready to play.”

Chugiak’s Morgan Greninger looks to shoot. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Thursday’s quarterfinal rematch will be the fourth game this season between the Wolverines and Mustangs. South won on Saturday and 2-0 on Nov. 3, and the teams tied 1-1 on Dec. 8.

Chugiak senior Landen Orebaugh said the Mustangs’ title defense will hinge on simplification. He referenced the need to stop playing “hero” hockey and to get more shots on net.

“It will be easier to flip that switch (for state) once we get back to practice and go to work,” Orebaugh said.

Let’s take a look at the other three quarterfinal matchups:

  • West vs. West Valley (co-op with Lathrop): The Eagles downed the Wolfpack 5-3 on Dec. 7 and 5-1 on Dec. 9. Both games were played in Fairbanks.
  • Colony vs. Dimond: The teams didn’t meet in the regular season. The NLC’s Knights also didn’t see Chugiak or Eagle River. They went 4-1-0 against the rest of CIC, including a 3-0 shutout of South on Dec. 1 and a 4-3 win over West on Jan. 22.
  • Wasilla vs. Service: The NLC’s Warriors defeated the Cougars 6-0 on Nov. 3. Service limps into state, having lost nine of 10 games and four in a row.

With their 16 wins, West and Wasilla earned the tournament’s top two seeds although those mean nothing after Thursday’s opening puck drop. ASAA obviously weighs a complete season’s body of work over “the now” when it brackets the tournament.

Eagles coach Rob Larkey knows his team must be ready for a genuine battle after coming up short in the CIC tournament.

“(Last week) neither hurt nor helped us,” he said. “You can’t tell our guys they played poorly, or the effort hasn’t been there.

“At state they have to muster three games of high quality to win it all. We’re one of the teams that can definitely do that.”

PAIR OF MUSTANGS MUSTER ALL-CIC HAT TRICK

As they age and reminisce, Chugiak senior Fischer Sims and coach Rod Wild will always share a special bond, a CIC hat trick of sorts.

The league coaches voted Sims to the all-CIC team for a third consecutive season. The textbook power forward scored 15 goals and 12 assists in a dozen conference regular-season contests.

In his 25th season guiding the Mustangs, Wild was named coach of the year for a third year in a row.

The 20-player all-star team featured 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders. Bartlett’s Wyatt Rust, Dimond’s Andrew Sturgeon, South’s Wiita and West’s Oliver Circosta, Evan Fitzgerald and Austin Keim were all honored for a second straight season.

All-Cook Inlet Conference Team
Forwards

Bartlett – Wyatt Rust, junior
Chugiak – Fischer Sims, senior; Blake Yawit, junior
Dimond – Joe Christiansen, senior; Caden San Juan, senior; Andrew Sturgeon, senior
Service – Sam Bigalke, junior
South – Reece Poisson, senior; Austin Witta, senior
West – Oliver Circosta, senior; Paul Dittrich, junior; Henry Sholton, senior
Defense
Bartlett – Dylan Beals, junior
Chugiak – Kyle McEwen, junior
Dimond – Joe Hampton, senior; Jason McKenna, senior
West – Evan Fitzgerald, senior; Austin Keim, senior
Goaltender
Chugiak – Caylin Jones, senior
South – Cole Schmidt, senior
Coach of the Year
Chugiak – Rod Wild
Team GPA
West – 3.54

 

ONE-TIMERS
  • ICYMI, consolation action in the CIC tournament concluded Friday night. West earned third place by defeating Dimond for the third time this season, this go-around by a score of 5-2. Meanwhile, Rust scored with 71 seconds remaining to help lift Bartlett to a crazy 9-8 victory over Service in the fifth-place game. The Golden Bears (4-15-0) lost their two earlier matchups with the Cougars, 8-5 and 5-0. There was some legitimate thought Bartlett might get the state nod over Service because of the win. But again, conference tournaments don’t seem to currently matter. Another reminder, DI hockey now only showcases 10 on-ice teams. Eight go to state.
  • Fifty-five years is a healthy amount of history. Here’s the CIC tournament title tote board after South’s win Saturday: Service 17, Dimond 14, South 8, West 6, East 5, Chugiak 4, Bartlett 1 and Eagle River 0.
  • The CIC has ruled over state since 1983 when “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” owned the box office. Anchorage School District teams have claimed every title but four (Lathrop in 1986, 1987, 2009; Palmer in 1989).
  • Five of the eight state participants have amassed 33 of the previously won 40 titles – Chugiak 6 (1991, 1992, 1994, 2000, 2017, 2023); Dimond 9 (1984, 1985, 1988, 1998, 2001, 2012, 2013, 2018, 2022); Service 8 (1983, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004); South 7 (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2014, 2019) and West 4 (2010, 2015, 2016, 2020). Wasilla’s best First National Cup showing came when it finished second in 1989. West Valley claimed a program-best second place three times (1984, 2000, 2015).
  • Boeke wasn’t out of commission long after ice plant issues and carbon dioxide alarms forced an evacuation Thursday. A faulty pressure release valve was replaced, and the venue was back in use early Friday.
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