When faced with overwhelming disappointment, whether in life or sports, there are two main options people have. Give up or get up, dust yourself off and keep going.
The Wayzata Junior Gold A team has shown that to play on their team, there’s really only one option.
Last year, the team was on the wrong end of one of the most memorable games in Junior Gold history, a 2-1 loss in the seventh overtime to archrival Edina in the State Championship game. Seven players returned this season with the goal of leading the team to that ultimate goal, and perhaps, a little payback over the Hornets.
While revenge wouldn’t come the way they originally planned, the Trojans were able to accomplish a couple of their goals, thanks to their relentless attitude.
Wazyata rebounded from another tough loss in the 2016 Minnesota Hockey Junior Gold A State Championship with an amazing run in the national championships, eventually earning a shot at a national title. Standing in their way would be familiar Minnesota foe, Edina. This time Wayzata ensured the story would have a different ending, using a power play goal late in the third period to force overtime, and eventually beating Edina 2-1 in overtime to win the 2016 USA Hockey National High School Pure Division Championship.
“You go through the heartbreak of a five overtime loss, and for those that were on the team last year, a seven overtime championship game loss,” said Wayzata head coach Jonathan Lindahl. “I think they realized that it’s a fine line between winning and losing a game like that, and they’re just thankful that this time it gets to be a celebration versus disappointment.”
Adjusting Their Sights
The 2015-16 season progressed just like Wayzata planned as the team worked all season and earned exactly what it wanted – a State Championship rematch against Edina. The game would prove to be an eerie repeat of the previous year though. The teams headed to overtime locked at one goal apiece, and once again, Edina would finish on top, scoring in the fifth overtime period to win 2-1.
“Not winning state was a big disappointment for us, especially kind of going through the whole multi-overtime scenario again against Edina and having to go through that disappointment again,” said Lindahl.
Unlike the previous year, the loss in the state final didn’t end the season for the Trojans as they had committed to participate in the national tournament earlier in the season.
With only a few days before leaving for nationals in Virginia, the coaches held a team meeting the day after their loss to Edina. The message from the coaches was simple and direct. The time for feeling frustrated or disappointed is over. Now, it’s time to shift our perspective and set our sights on a new goal.
“I think that was important for us,” said Lindahl. “To put behind us the disappointment of that state championship game and refocus our thinking and our energies to trying to do something special at nationals.”
A Challenge on the Horizon
As Wayzata and Edina prepared for their journey to Virginia for the High School Pure Division National Tournament, the top question for many in the hockey community was who they would be playing. Is it other Junior Gold teams? Are they actual high school teams?
Thankfully, Edina participated in nationals last season, and a few other leaders in Junior Gold hockey went with them to get a better understanding of the tournament. They quickly discovered the event consisted of the top high school teams from other parts of the country, and Minnesota’s top Junior Gold A teams could compete and win against the best of them.
“I think what a lot of people in Minnesota don’t understand, and we kind of get isolated in that sense a little bit, is we think Junior Gold is a level that exists everywhere,” said Lindahl. “It’s unique to Minnesota for the most part. It really exists because of the depth that we have.”
“We knew that going into this tournament we were playing top tier high school teams from large parts of the country.”
That sentiment would particularly hold true for Wayzata as they ended up in one of the toughest pools in the tournament. The pool included Colorado State High Champion and defending national champion, Regis Jesuit, 2014 national champion – Bethel Park from Pennsylvania, and a perennial contender from California in JSerra, who would eventually win the pool.
“I think both us and Edina got placed in pretty tough pools,” said Lindahl. “It was hard to come out of those pools.”
Stepping Up at the Right Times
Hard may have been understatement. After beating JSerra 3-2 in their first game and losing 3-2 in a shootout to Bethel Park, Wayzata faced Regis Jesuit in a must win game. The winner would advance from pool play on to bracket play and the loser would go home.
The Colorado State Champs jumped out to a 3-0 lead but Wayzata battled back and evened the score. Regis Jesuit pulled ahead again in the third period, but Wayzata was able to keep pace. The Trojans capitalized on a power play late in the third to force overtime, where they ended up pulling out a 5-4 win.
After beating JSerra in the quarterfinals, the Trojans needed overtime heroics again in the semifinals against Winston Churchill (MO). This time the roles were reversed as Winston Churchill charged back from deficits of 4-1 and 5-4 to send the game to overtime. Wayzata was able to prevail once more and advance to the title game with a 6-5 win.
“Of our six games at nationals, five of them were one goal games,” said Lindahl. “Four of them were overtime games. Our one loss was an overtime that went to a shootout. Our last three overtime games were all single elimination games. If we had lost them, we would have been done.”
“When you’re going through it, you’re kind of just taking it one game at a time, and it’s just another victory. The last couple of days I’ve been able to look back on it and say you know what we were really close to being done and the fact that we were able to win three overtime games like that is a pretty good accomplishment and something our team can be proud of.”
A Title Rematch
When the tournament started, many of the teams in the tournament knew little about the participants from Minnesota, and few people, including the State of Hockey faithful, would have pegged Edina and Wayzata to be the last two standing.
As coach Lindahl stated, “It was a cool experience to have it end up that way.”
Two teams that just a week earlier had competed for the Minnesota Hockey Junior Gold A State Championship were now competing for a title on a national stage, and everyone who knows these two teams knew the game would be more than worth the price of admission.
“It was almost like we picked up with Edina right where we left off,” said Lindahl. “It was up and down the ice – fast and crisp and with some pretty big hits here and there.”
The game proceeded as expected, with the teams trading momentum swings back and forth and eventually needing extra time to decide the outcome.
This time it was Wayzata who would come out on top as AJ Oare scored just a few minutes into overtime to lead the Trojans to a 2-1 win and the 2016 USA Hockey High School Pure Division National Championship.
“We would have loved to have won in front of our fans at home, but coming here, it was good redemption to get back at Edina,” said Oare in an interview with USA Today. “We played them pretty even all year. It means a lot for me to end the career that way.”
For Lindahl, that was one of the reasons the win was particularly special.
“We had so many seniors,” said Lindahl. “12 of our 17 guys were seniors. I think the comment I kept hearing was, ‘This is the best way to go out. This is the best way to end it.”
“It was just awesome for them to get a little bit of a taste of that and to end their careers on a high note.”
The championship also served as a special day for junior gold hockey in Minnesota, as it marked the first time a junior gold team from Minnesota won a national title at the high school level. As a testament to both teams’ accomplishments, their rivalry and setting new heights for junior gold, the teams agreed before the game to take a picture together.
“It wasn’t as much about Wayzata or Edina,” said Lindahl. “Regardless of whether you’re the winner or the loser, it’s something special. It ends up being bigger than just the individual or the team. It becomes part of something more important.”