A year ago, the Rushmore Hockey Association boys' varsity saw a very successful season culminate in a dispiriting loss to Brookings in the state championship game, a contest in which the Thunder dominated most everywhere but on the scoreboard.
“I hate to even think about that game,” Thunder forward Brian Petereit said before practice on Tuesday. “Honestly, I think we were the better team that day. I thought we outplayed them and simply couldn’t put the puck in the net (Rushmore outshot Brookings 32-21). We played our game and just couldn’t get the bounces we wanted.
This weekend, most of those same players — now a talented group of seniors — will have a shot at redemption when the 2018 South Dakota Amateur Hockey Association Boys Varsity State Tournament opens play at the Expo Center in Ft. Pierre on Friday.
“We do have a lot of experience,” Rushmore coach Dick Novak emphasized. “Tanner Good is in his fourth year with the varsity. Ryan Nolan and some others are in their third year. And these kids have been through state championships, and successfully. They were on the PeeWee and the Bantam state championship teams, so they’ve been through it all.”
The senior experience proved invaluable early in the season as the Thunder (16-1-1) rebounded from a second-game loss to Sioux Falls (16-1-1) by putting together a 16-game unbeaten streak to close out the regular season.
An explosive offense was the key component to Rushmore success as no team lit the lamp more frequently than Rushmore — 125 goals on the season (a 6.74 goal per game average), compared to 116 for runner-up Sioux Falls.
“I think this team is quite similar to our other state championship teams,” said Novak, who coached Rushmore’s three previous boys varsity championship teams (2010, 2014-15). “We play good defense for the most part, and we just have a lot of really good offensive hockey players. We can put the puck in the net, so we just need to get in and around the net and give ourselves some chances to score and we will be just fine.”
Nolan (18 goals, 25 assists, 43 points) and Petereit (18-14-32), team with Zach Bender (14-14-28) on the No. 1 line, are the Rushmore scoring leaders though far from the team’s only weapons. Jacob Lindblom (13-12-25), Austin Stiles (12-14-26), Derrick Brown (12-10-22), and Gavin Gary (9-12-21) provide plenty of firepower as well.
“We are more experienced and play together better this year,” Petereit said. “We know what the other guys are going to do and can react to that without having to think about it. We have a lot of lines and a lot of guys that can produce, and John (Young) is a great goaltender. It’s always a relief knowing he’s back there between the pipes.”
Young (15-1-1 on the season with a 2.21 goals against average) has seen most of the action in the net for Rushmore and will do so in Pierre.
“As long as we are winning, John will be back there,” Novak said. “John is solid and he loves to compete. If he’s not in goal, he’s always after us to play him elsewhere and he’s good enough he could. He likes to compete and that’s what you like in a goaltender.”
Providing support to Young in the Rushmore defensive zone will be veterans blue liners Tanner Good and Gavin Gary. joined by the duo of Grant Wolthius and Seth Dikoff.
On paper, the state title would appear to be a three-team race with Rushmore, top-seeded Sioux Falls — over Rushmore by virtue of fewer goals allowed — and two-time defending champion Brookings (13-3-2).
“They are very, very, similar teams,” Novak said. “They both skate well, of course, and Sioux Falls had two really good goalies as does Brookings. And they spread their scoring out and don’t count on one line to do all their scoring.”
A team that people might be overlooking heading into tournament play?
“You better watch Watertown. They beat Brookings the last game of the season, and they played us really well, too,” Novak said. “Honestly, we were fortunate to win the first game up there (a 5-4 regular season win in Watertown).”
Rushmore begins tournament play with a 11:05 a.m. (Mountain Time) contest against Mitchell (5-11-0) on Friday as the Thunder look to add a fourth boys varsity state title to the Rushmore Hockey Association trophy case.
And a fitting conclusion for a talented group of seniors making their final appearances in Rushmore Thunder uniforms.
“With all of our seniors, this definitely makes this tournament special for us,” Bender said. “I’ve been playing with some of these guys since I was 7 years old and it would be special in our final run together to take home a state championship.”