By Greg Bates
DE PERE – Two seniors that are good friends weren’t going to let it be their last time skating together and wearing a Notre Dame Academy sweater.
Hunter Bill and Brenden Gruber made sure of that.
The two assistant captains on the Tritons boys’ hockey team came up big against rival Bay Port in a WIAA Division 1 sectional final on Saturday night at the Cornerstone Community Center.
After a Bay Port turnover in its own end early in overtime, Gruber carried the puck into the Notre Dame offensive zone, made a kickout pass to his buddy, Bill, and he buried a wrist shot into the back of the net.
The overtime goal gave Notre Dame a 3-2, come-from-behind victory to punch its ticket to the state tournament.
“I couldn’t even believe it at first,” Gruber said about the game-winning goal. “I didn’t even know it went in, it was such a good shot.”
Bill — who has been to state all four of his years at Notre Dame — saw the puck going into the net and had one immediate reaction.
“I wanted to celebrate with my brothers right away,” he said. “This is a brotherhood and this is why we’re going to win state.”
Gruber, Bill and their first-line teammates were on the ice for all three of Notre Dame’s goals on the evening.
“When the lights are the brightest, your best players need to step up,” Notre Dame coach Cory McCracken said. “Hunter stepped up when the lights were the brightest today.”
The win for the top-ranked Tritons kept them perfect on the season at 26-0 as they head to the state semifinals.
“It’s a big accomplishment, but now we’ve got to finish these next two games off in front of us,” Bill said.
Notre Dame opened the scoring in the first period when Gruber lit the lamp at the 12:03 mark.
Bay Port — which finished the season 20-5, with three of its losses coming to Notre Dame — answered quickly. Noah Brunke scored just 32 seconds after Notre Dame’s goal to tie it.
In the second period, Pirates senior Sam Lyons was whistled for a five-minute major penalty and a game ejection for an unsportsmanlike conduct. Bay Port killed off the penalty, but the loss of Lyons was tough, coach Mike Buchan said.
Bay Port took a 2-1 lead just 34 seconds into the third period on a Nick Voss goal.
About midway through the third, Notre Dame started pushing extra hard in its own zone. Peppering Bay Port goalie Devin Rustlie, the Tritons finally broke through.
Notre Dame sophomore Sam Kappell got a turnover right in front of the Bay Port net and beat Rustlie with 5:15 remaining in regulation.
“Sam got himself inside the scoring area and shot a puck low glove that beat Devin,” McCracken said. “Devin had an outstanding night, but that one Sam had that one labeled.”
With an extra pep in their step, the Notre Dame players kept up their relentless play.
“We deal with adversity really well,” Gruber said. “We’re a good third-period team and we know how to pull together.”
Neither team could net the game-winning goal in regulation as it went to an eight-minute overtime.
It was the first shift of the extra session in which Bill and Notre Dame ended the game at the 29-second mark.
When Bill carried the puck into the faceoff circle, was he thinking about ripping a wrist shot top shelf?
“I wasn’t thinking, I just shot it,” Bill said. “I was just getting shots to the net just like Cory (McCracken) said, and we executed.”
“He’s a sharpshooter,” Gruber said about Bill. “He always makes them. I’ve got trust in my teammates, and he pulled through for us. It’s a big win.”
McCracken’s team never gave up when it trailed by a goal with under six minutes remaining in the third period. That shows the longtime coach a lot about his guys.
“That’s the testament of this hockey team as they tie their skates up and they get back to work and they find a way to get through it,” he said. “Just the resiliency that the guys showed, I’m super proud of them.”
Notre Dame will now prepare for a state semifinal on Friday. It is anticipated that the undefeated Tritons will earn the No. 1 seed and face the No. 4 seed at 10 a.m. at the Bob Suter Capitol Ice Arena in Middleton. The second semifinal of No. 2 vs. No. 3 will follow at 12:30 p.m. The WIAA will announce the seedings on Sunday morning. The state title game will be Saturday at roughly 2:30 p.m.
Hudson, Verona and University School are the other three schools in the Division 1 field. Notre Dame beat all three teams during the regular season.
“We understand what they bring to the table,” McCracken said. “Hudson’s the two-time defending state champion — they’re not going to be an easy out. We saw University School 10 days ago and Verona’s a perennial state tournament team. We’re going to get everybody’s best game, they’re going to get our best game.”
This will be Notre Dame’s seventh trip to state since it won its first and only title in 2011-12. The program is 3-6 in state games since 2013.
Bill thinks the Tritons will get over the hump and win another state title.
“I do believe this is the year,” Bill said. “We have a great group of kids. The tightest team we’ve ever had before. There’s nothing better than it.”
By Greg Bates