Plymouth — History was going to be made on Saturday afternoon as neither Detroit Country Day nor Livonia Churchill had ever won the hockey state championship as Division 3 members.
It was the team that hadn’t won a state title since 1981 before Division 3 was formed, Country Day, that came out on top in a thriller, beating Churchill, 2-1.
The win extended Country Day’s winning streak to 22 games.
As the time ticked away in the second period with a scoreless tie, it seemed like the first goal in the third period would decide the defensive battle. Then junior forward Mickey VanAntwerp beat two defenders on a breakaway, putting Country Day (28-2-1) ahead 1-0 with just 38 seconds left in the period.
“I think Mick (VanAntwerp) was 0-for-8 on breakaways and the guys let him know about it all season,” Country Day coach Frank Novock said. “I guess you save your best for last and when it matters the most. And even him skating. Mick’s not the fastest guy in the world but I think that’s the fastest I’ve seen him skate all year.”
The game looked to be decided after Tim Stebbins’ deflection goal with under 11 minutes to go in the third period, giving Country Day a 2-0 lead, but Churchill wasn’t ready to let its improbable run to the state title game be in vain.
Following a Churchill (16-12-3) goal that was waved off, controversially, it came back and scored a minute later thanks to a bullet off the stick of Seth Kucharczyk and past Country Day goalie Sam Evola cutting the lead to one with just under eight minutes to go.
“To be very honest with you, I was under the impression we had video replay for a reason,” Churchill coach Jason Reynolds said of the goal that was called off. “That being said, no different from any roadblock we’ve been thrown into.”
Churchill’s first trip to the Division 3 title game wasn’t all for naught as Reynolds saw personal growth from his team, which he says will benefit future teams.
“I’m incredibly proud of how hard these guys worked to get to this point,” Reynolds said. “I can’t say enough about this hockey team considering all the adversity these guys have overcome over the course of the season.”
Country Day’s first state hockey championship in nearly 40 years took years to build to. Alumni of the program reached out to Kovock in the days leading up to the semifinals, expressing support.
“I remember last year at our banquet, we had a wonderful group of seniors and I said right at the banquet, I don’t know when, but when we do win a state championship, these guys that have come before us are the first ones I’m going to thank,” Novock said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
As he saw the clock winding down and chaos ensuing in front of his net, junior goalie Evola kept calm and did what he had done all game: shut down Churchill’s attack. He made 30 saves.
Thriving under pressure isn’t new to Evola as he was forced to make big stops in Friday’s semifinal win over Hancock. One thing was going through his mind in the final minute.
“Just do what I do best,” Evola said. “It doesn’t feel like (I thrive under pressure), but when I look back at it, I guess you could say that. A lot of it is guys like (senior forward Carter Elrod) that are blocking shots out of nowhere.”
Coming from the college coaching ranks and adjusting to high school hockey has been a process for Novock, but one he says he’s been grateful for.
“What an honor to coach this group,” Novock said. “As we said at our senior night before the year started, my biggest doubt was us scoring goals and leadership and it far surpassed my expectations.”
Connor Muldowney is a freelance writer