Rocky Mountain High: The Centennial High School boys’ hockey team enjoyed a week-long trip to Colorado this past summer to play three games and visit several sites around the state.
This past offseason saw the Centennial boys’ high school hockey program continue its string of faraway adventures, as the Cougars ventured to Colorado to elevate their game. Centennial ended its summer training period with a week-long excursion to the Rocky Mountains, where they faced the best high school teams that the state of Colorado had to offer, while also seeing some incredible sights.
This was the fifth trip in five years for the Centennial boys, as they’ve alternated between New York City and Colorado. And this voyage turned out to be as memorable and successful as those which preceded it.
While in Boulder and Denver, Centennial faced four different Colorado teams, three of whom made Colorado’s “Frozen Four” (the Colorado state high school tournament) last spring. The Cougars’ first opponent was Monarch High School, 2017 Colorado state champs and 2018 state semifinalists. The Cougars and Coyotes were tied 1-1, 2-2, and 3-3 over the course of the game, getting goals from Pavel Salter, Matt Hove and Josh O’Hara. Finally, with seven minutes to play, junior forward Cole Jackson rang the back bar to propel the Cougars to a 4-3 win over the Yotes.
Next, Centennial faced Colorado’s 2018 state runners-up, the Valor Christian Eagles. Despite being a newer program, Valor has quickly climbed towards the peak of Colorado prep hockey under the direction of coaching legend George Gwozdecky, who coached the nearby University of Denver to two NCAA titles. The Eagles struck first before the Cougars tied the game on a Nate Schoolmeesters’ redirection of a Will Francis bomb. Valor carried a 2-1 lead into the final frame, at which point senior captain Josh Hermes took the game over for Centennial. Hermes tied the game on a power-play goal from Francis with 12 minutes to play and then Hermes buried a game-winner from Kullan Daikawa with seven minutes remaining. The Cougars withstood a late charge from Valor to capture a 3-2 win, grabbing their second win of the trip and extending Centennial’s overall record in Colorado and New York to a perfect 17-0 over since 2014.
Next up for the Cougs came the Chaparral Wolverines, a 2018 Colorado state semifinalist and a team led by head coach Ryan Finnefrock, who grew up in Colorado, played his college hockey at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and makes a pilgrimage to St. Paul every spring to see the Minnesota High School Hockey Tournament in person. Having seen Centennial play at the Xcel Energy Center only a few months earlier, Coach Finnefrock would now face the Cougars on Colorado ice.
Red-hot Josh Hermes continued to lead the Cougars, recording a hat trick by the midway point of the game. Hermes’ three markers, plus a 2-on-1 finish from junior forward Scottie Nelson, provided Centennial with a 4-2 lead over Chaparral heading into the final 17 minutes. But a third period surge from the Wolverines tied the game 4-4, prompting overtime. The two teams lined up to play a 3-on-3, NHL-style overtime – resulting in four-and-a-half minutes of high-octane, wide-open, odd-man rush hockey. After trading non-stop “Grade A” scoring chances for nearly five minutes, Hermes scored his fourth goal of the game and second game-winner of the day, propelling Centennial to a 5-4 win and maintaining their perfect record.
The fourth and final game of the Cougars’ ultimate road trip came against the Dakota Ridge Eagles. The “Dirty Birds,” as Dakota Ridge is known, withstood an early Centennial attack, frustrating the Cougars well into the second period. But the Cougars finally broke through, scoring five goals in a 10-minute span during the second period, eventually advancing to a 7-0 victory.
The win over Dakota Ridge pushed the Cougars’ record in out-of-state games to 19-0 since 2014, a fact not lost on this year’s crop of players.
“Keeping the undefeated streak going means a lot to us,” said junior captain Jake Pierson.
“We weren’t going to be that team,” Hermes added, indicating that this Centennial group always intended to live up to the high expectations of their predecessors.
With the hockey behind them, the Cougars got on with the business of having fun and exploring more of the state. A trip to Colorado Springs brought a three-hour meeting with inimitable Air Force head coach Frank Serratore, who hosted the Cougars and their families, providing a tour of the Air Force Academy campus and the Falcons’ rink and training facilities. That afternoon, the team visited the picturesque Garden of the Gods.
The next day, the team headed further into the mountains, where they spent the morning whitewater rafting on Clear Creek and the afternoon at the Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Winter Park, where the team split into three groups and participated in hatchet-throwing, lassoing, and wall-climbing competitions.
The travelers took in a Colorado Rockies game from the “Rockpile” (the bleachers in Coors Field), where the team saw a walk-off home run for the home team, as the playoff-bound Rockies defeated the then-defending World Series champion Houston Astros. Other activities included day trips to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, friendly competitions at Top Golf, and team meals on Pearl Street, next to the Colorado University campus.
Senior captain Xan Brouillet said, “It was an incredible week spending time with my teammates, getting to do something we all love while being in a place that looks totally different from home.”
Hermes added, “It’s an unreal opportunity to get away from home to grow as a team and have unique experiences as a team.”
Of the trip, Centennial assistant coach Ted Cheesebrough, the architect of 10 such trips for his high school teams over the past 13 years, said, “We want to have fun with hockey – and we aren’t going to be bound the same, everyday conventions that hold teams, players and coaches back. Get busy living or get busy dying!”
Air Force head coach Frank Serratore (right) addresses the Cougars in the Falcon locker room.