One word defined the Homer Mariners’ state semifinal win over Juneau-Douglas on Friday.
Having lost two tough road games to Juneau earlier in the season, the Mariners claimed the most important one of all, Friday’s Div. II state semifinal with a resounding 3-0 victory to secure their spot in Saturday’s championship final.
Homer will face the Palmer Moose for their first hockey title Saturday at 5 p.m. at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.
Homer junior Ethan Pitzman notched a hat trick for Homer, breaking open a scoreless game with three goals in the third period, and senior Hunter Warren stood tall in goal with a 43-save shutout.
It was everything they could have imagined.
“This is the one that counts,” Warren said.
“This is everything,” Pitzman added. “This is like regions for us.”
The triumph was also redemption for a heartbreaking loss at the conference tournament a year ago, when Homer lost a chance to qualify for its first state tournament ever with a semifinal loss to Wasilla.
“You’ve never seen so many young men cry in the locker room,” Pitzman recalled of that loss. “That was a dream season.”
Now, in the school’s first ever state hockey appearance since the state split into two divisions for large and small schools, the Mariners are 2-0 in the postseason in program history.
Homer coach Steve Nevak credited team health in helping the Mariners reach their goal. Two weeks ago, Homer had a rash of players ill as they took to the road in Juneau and lost 4-3 in overtime before returning the next day to lose 7-3.
“Our goaltender was one of the sick ones in Juneau,” Nevak said. “Obviously he ain’t sick no more.”
Warren was a menace between the pipes, stifling the Crimson Bears with dynamic play including a handful of highlight-reel stops. Warren staved off 35 shots in the first two periods alone, including a 21-save second period.
“I always think in big games, you’ve got to pull it though,” Warren said. “You’re team’s going to help you out all they can, but in the end, lot of times it comes down to the goalie so I had to play with the mindset that it would all be me.”
The drama built as neither team could solve the other’s goaltender. For Juneau, goalie Cody Mitchell warded off the Mariners’ advances, and finished with 23 saves.
For a second day in a row, Nevak said Homer came out sluggish and nervous, and unable to shake off the funk they were in, but encouraging words kept their minds in the game.
“Talking about positivity,” Nevak said. “Kids were on the bench, feeling down and getting frustrated, and once we started rolling with the positivity, everything changed.
“I said whoever gets that first goal, the other team will stay down.”
As the third period dawned, the intensity reached a whole new level, and Pitzman finally broke the tension with 9:43 left to play on a rush down the right flank, redirecting a cross-ice pass from teammate Tyler Gilliland to slip the puck by Mitchell for a 1-0 lead.
“That power play goal was huge,” Pitzman said. “My linemate Tyler with two beautiful passes … we’ve been playing since we’re like six years old, and no one works harder than him.”
Pitzman delivered again with 4:02 to go, then finished off his hat trick with 1:37 left on another assist from Gilliland to send the Homer crowd into a frenzy.
Mariners 3, Crimson Bears 0
Juneau 0 0 0 —0
Homer 0 0 3 —3
First period — no scoring. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00.
Second period — no scoring. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00; Juneau 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 1. Homer, Pitzman (Gilliland), PP, 5:17; 2. Homer, Pitzman (Nevak), 10:58; 3. Homer, Pitzman (unassisted), 13:23. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Juneau 14-21-8—43; Homer 11-5-10—26.