The Homer Mariner hockey team made school history last weekend when they secured the program’s first ever state championship win during the ASAA/First National Cup Division II State Hockey Championships in Fairbanks.
After coming within inches of the first place trophy last year but losing to the Palmer Moose in a crushing overtime period, the Mariners did what they had to to keep this year’s championship from slipping through their fingers. They defeated fellow Railbelt Conference team Soldotna 4-1 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Patty Ice Arena.
“It was pretty surreal, you know,” said head coach Steve Nevak after the game Saturday. “I just keep thinking back to last year when my core group of seniors, when they lost to Palmer. And they told me, ‘It won’t happen again.’ And, you know, they rode that emotion and they put forth a great game.”
The win was especially sweet for those seniors who remembered just how close they came the year before, and for Nevak, who has coached many of the players since they were children and who is stepping down as head coach after this season.
Senior Ethan Pitzman helped the team to victory with two goals — one in the second period with an assist from fellow seniors Tyler Gilliland and Alden Ross, and an unassisted shot in the third — but it was sophomore Karl Wickstrom who got the first point on the scoreboard with an assist from Casey Otis in the first period.
Senior Phinny Weston also contributed a goal late in the second period with an assist from Pitzman to help clinch the win.
A major effort was put in on Saturday by Homer goaltender Keegan Strong, who stayed mobile throughout the game and blocked 40 of Soldotna’s 41 shots on Homer’s net, compared to Homer’s total 36 shots on goal. Soldotna outshot Homer in both the first and third periods (14-11 and 17-12, respectively).
“No team is great without a goaltender, and he (Strong) was player of the game for sure,” Nevak said.
Nevak said he’s proud of the entire program, from the managers to the members of the fourth line.
“We had a game plan for each game and we executed each game,” he said.
The plan that worked so well on Saturday was for Homer to use all four lines in order to wear out Soldotna’s “big guns,” Nevak said. Then the team went to work with its top three lines for the rest of the game.
“I couldn’t ask for a better ending,” Nevak said of the victory. “Especially with my boys on the team and then the other seniors on the team.”
Palmer took third place in the state championships after a 4-3 victory over the North Pole Patriots that went into overtime. Kenai Central High School secured fourth place in the tournament after a 4-0 shutout of Glennallen/Tok/Barrow.
Now, the Mariners head to the DI State Championships this weekend in Wasilla. The winning DII team was given the option to compete in the larger schools tournament. The team will play South Anchorage at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at the Curtis Menard Sports Center.
“The good thing about going into DI is there’s no pressure on us,” Nevak said. “We’re going in there pressure free, and that’s good.”
He said the Mariners will just stick to their game plan and play hard.
“A number of those (DI) teams have seen us play, and they know what we’re about,” Nevak said.
Mariners 13, Viking Warriors 0
Tri-Valley 0, 0, 0 — 0
Homer 0, 9, 4 — 13
First period goals: none. Penalties : none.
Second period goals: 1. Homer, Shafford (Stineff), 0:31; 2. Homer, E. Pitzman (Ross); 3. Homer, E. Pitzman (Allen, Knutson), 4:00; 4. Homer, Ross (Gilliland), 5:42; 5. Homer, I. Nevak (Gilliland), 6:07; 6. Homer, T. Nevak (un.), 7:58; 7. Homer, Shafford (un.), 8:30; 8. Homer, O. Pitzman (Allen, Otis), 9:04; 9. Homer, I. Nevak (Weston), 10:17. Penalties: Homer 2 for 4:00.
Third period goals: 10. Homer, Allen (E. Pitzman), 5:35; 11. Homer, Stineff (Weston), 8:25; 12. Homer, Banks (Green), 10:35; 13. Homer, Nevak (un.), 13:12. Penalties: Tri-Valley 1 for 2:00; Homer 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal: Tri-Valley 4, 3, 2 – 9; Homer 16, 22, 18 – 56.
Mariners 7, Patriots 1
North Pole 1, 0, 0 — 1
Homer 3, 2, 2 — 7
First period goals: 1. Homer, Gilliland (I. Nevak), 1:58; 2. Homer, I. Nevak (un.), 5:05; 3. Homer, Ross (I. Nevak, E. Pitzman), 6:20; 4. North Pole, Clark (Wilbus), 9:58. Penalties : North Pole 2 for 4:00; Homer 3 for 6:00.
Second period goals: 5. Homer, I. Nevak (un.), 3:32; 6. Homer, I. Nevak (un.), 11:51. Penalties: North Pole 1 for 2:00; Homer 2 for 4:00.
Third period goals: 7. Homer, I. Nevak (un.), 3:52; 8. Homer, E. Pitzman (un.), 5:32. Penalties: North Pole 1 for 2:00; Homer 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal: North Pole 1, 8, 5 – 14; Homer 20, 25, 16 – 61.
Several Homer players were named to the all conference team for the Railbelt Conference, which was released ahead of the championships last week. Pitzman was named most valuable player for the conference.
Railbelt All-Conference team
Most Valuable Player: Ethan Pitzman, Homer.
Coach of the Year: Scott Shelden, Kenai Central.
All-conference: Ethan Pitzman, Homer; Wyatt Medcoff, Soldotna; Isaiah Nevak, Homer; Tyler Gilliland, Homer; Galen Brantley III, Soldotna; Trent Powell, Soldotna; Jordan Knudsen, Kenai; Miles Marston, Kenai; Tiernan O’Rourke, Palmer; Isaiah Squires, Houston; Ethan Welch, Juneau.
Reach Megan Pacer at email@example.com.