Time was winding down. The Eau Claire Mustangs, full of fresh baby faces just a short year or two away from joining the ranks of prestigious high school programs, had just tied Appleton at 1-all in the 2014 Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association Bantam 1A state championship game in Waukesha.
And one of the squad’s younger players, seventh-grader Brenden Olson, found the puck on his stick. With 9 seconds to go, he rattled home the game-winning goal as Eau Claire brought a state title trophy back to the youth hockey offices.
Five years later, seven of those players have one final shot to bring home another state championship trophy as second-seeded Eau Claire Memorial is back at its ninth consecutive WIAA state tournament. They’d love for it to come full circle.
“It was awesome because we have been friends for so long and growing up through sports and pee wee and bantam,” Olson said. “I think it was a really big climax in our careers, and hopefully we can continue that this year.”
This time, it’s the final stretch these guys will be on the ice together. Of the skaters on that team, Josh Berg, Ben Zacho, Keagan Calchera, Hutson Collins, Grant Thielbar, Nick Schultz and Adam Webb will play their final games in Eau Claire uniforms this weekend. Olson is the lone junior of that group.
“It’s super special,” Berg said. “It’s amazing we’ve accomplished so much together. It’s just awesome, but it will also be weird not seeing everybody every day.”
Jeff Pippenger and Ryan Venne were also on that team and played instrumental parts in North’s turnaround over the last half decade.
These guys all grew up together and experienced the highest of highs.
And while the group of Memorial kids have all played plenty of games at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, they’ve never hoisted a high school championship trophy. It’s their mission to do so this year and bring back the program’s first since 2013.
“We’ve been talking a lot about this,” Olson said. “This is really a big moment in our careers here and ending our careers together. Hopefully we can make it happen.”
That group in 2014, which also included current U.S. NTDP defenseman Ty Emberson, experienced success because of the style it played, Collins said.
Coach Marty Hickey had them play a simple brand of hockey and didn’t over-emphasize skill.
“I think back then, our coach really drilled into our heads the middle lane drive and breaking out through the middle,” Collins said. “We played very simple and worked our butts off, and that’s how we got it done.”
When the Old Abes have been in trouble this season, that’s how they’ve gotten themselves back in the game. The best example of that was when Memorial battled back from a 2-0 deficit to tie top-ranked Hudson on Feb. 6. The Abes realized stick work wasn’t going to beat the disciplined Raiders, so they got pucks to the net and tied it on a rebound goal.
It’s also an illustration of how these guys operate. They are funny as heck together off the ice and aren’t afraid of a good time. But when push comes to shove and there’s a hockey game on the line, they’ve found a way for most of their careers.
“I think they know how to have a little fun,” Hickey said. “They definitely rib each other a little bit, but when it comes down to being serious, they come together and gel together. If you mess with one, you mess with all of them.
“When it’s on the line, they get down to it. It’s been fun watching them, and they have a great opportunity to do it again.”
Some of the executed 2-on-1s or backdoor plays this year have shown just how well these guys know each other on the ice.
“I think a lot of the people we played with have stuck with that same kind of style, and it’s been fun playing with guys that we’ve been playing with our whole life,” Collins said. “We know what they are going to do with the puck before we even talk to them.”
Some of their best memories together have come in tournament settings. They know how to pace themselves for three games in three days — everything from recovery at the hotel to the diet all weekend.
They’d love one more long stay together. If time is winding down in a tight game, they’ve been there and done that before.
If all goes right for Memorial this weekend, they’ll party like it’s 2014.