The final face-offs have occurred, and eliminations have been determined for the 2016-17 season as the New Mexico Interscholastic Ice Hockey League (NMIIHL) teams took to the ice at the “Year-End Tournament” (YET) in El Paso, Texas, March 3-5. Known as the Composite Division tournament, the double-elimination bracket included eight of the nine teams from the NMIIHL, including the (No. 1 seed) Durango Devils, (No. 2) Cibola (Río Rancho) Cougars, (No. 3) Los Alamos Hilltoppers, (No. 4) Taos Ice Tigers, (No. 5) Big Texan (Amarillo, Texas) Bulls, (No. 6) La Cueva (Albuquerque) Bears, (No. 7) Coronado (El Paso, Texas) and (No. 8) Odessa (Texas) Jr. Jacks. Due to a lack of players, the Santa Fe Blue Jackets did not compete in the YET.
Coach Mark Richert and his band of Ice Tigers – who entered the tournament play after a nearly three-week hiatus – finished the 2016-17 regular season with an 8-4-4 overall record and came out as one of the teams eliminated during the course of play throughout the weekend.
Bulls 5, Ice Tigers 4
In the very first game of the tourney, the evenly matched Big Texan Bulls and the Ice Tigers, who occupied the middle of the bracket as the No. 5 and No. 4 seeds, respectively, needed overtime to determine a victor March 3. During the season, the two teams tied each other twice in Amarillo, so this game marked the ultimate rubber match as each squad traveled more than six hours from their homes to the El Paso County Events Center (EPCEC) to compete in the quarterfinal – or opening round.
Taos’ lone goal was provided by Ysidro Gravelle, who did not participate in the regular-season games versus the Bulls due to an injury. His goal came in the third period at the 11:56 mark and was assisted by Justin “Juice” Lucero.
In the end, it was the Bulls who pulled it out with an unassisted goal from Vincent Petray at the 4:19 mark. It was Petray’s second goal of the game, as he was able to sneak one past the Ice Tigers’ defense in the final minute of the second period. His game winner in overtime earned his team an advance to the semifinals against the top-ranked Durango Devils. Taos dropped down to the losers bracket and had to play Odessa at 6:30 a.m. March 4.
Ice Tigers 12, Jr. Jacks 1
The early morning game did not seem to affect the Ice Tigers, as they took care of business on the ice and defeated the Odessa Jr. Jacks in orderly fashion March 4. The lopsided score was a familiar outcome that the Jr. Jacks had endured throughout the season as they went winless in 2016-17, scoring a total of 28 goals and giving up 141.
While there were several players who scored goals during the match, Theo Hummel was credited with the game-winning goal in the second stanza and a hat trick (three goals) in the contest. As a team, the Ice Tigers scored one point in the first period, five in the second and six in the third. The win set up a third meeting between Northern New Mexico foes Taos and Los Alamos.
Hilltoppers 5, Taos 4
In a preview to the Pure Division championship, Taos and Los Alamos squared off in the afternoon get-together that included both the chance to advance in the tournament and the chance to secure the North Star trophy. The North Star, a prize earned by the winning team during any meeting between Taos and Los Alamos programs, was recently taken by the Ice Tigers after a 6-1 win at the Taos Youth and Family Center ice rink Feb. 3.
On this occasion, though, the Hilltoppers would win it back by beating Taos 5-4 in a game that saw four ties and two lead changes, the last one being the game winner by LA’s Jacob Dunwoody at the 0:59 mark in the third period.
Hummel, Gravelle, Leandro Richert and Jake Danemann all contributed with a single goal each in the contest. Hummel, Lucero, Simon Mount and Dwyer Lujan were credited with goal assists. Max Mount was acknowledged for 10 saves in the first period, 12 in the second and 10 in the third.
“Everyone played a really good game,” said co-captain and senior defenseman Danemann in postgame remarks. “We’re really excited for a rematch with Los Alamos.”
Although the Hilltoppers advanced to the semifinals of the losers bracket, they would eventually fall to the top-ranked Durango Devils. All that remains of the Composite Division YET is the championship game that will be held in Río Rancho, pitting the No. 2 Cibola Cougars against the No. 1 Durango Devils March 11.
After the first round of games, a league banquet was held for players and coaches March 3. The players selected to the all-star team from Taos included: Richert, Gravelle, Lucero, Hummel, Danemann and Max Mount. Hummel, who had a team-high total of four goals throughout the tournament, was also presented with the “League Sportsmanship” award.
Out of more than 150 varsity hockey players in the league, the following Ice Tigers finished in the top 10 in league scoring: Richert finished second overall with 38 points, Hummel was fifth with 34 and Lucero was seventh with 32.
Former Ice Tiger head coach Brian Greer was among the awardees as well, receiving the “Commissioner’s Award” for outstanding service to New Mexico high school hockey.
Pure Division championship
Up next for the Ice Tigers will be one more showdown with their fiercest rival and current owner of the North Star trophy, the Los Alamos Hilltoppers. At stake is the Pure Division championship and the aforementioned prize – which will stay with the winning team for the entire offseason and until LA and Taos meet again next fall.
This will be the last time seniors Danemann, Hummel, Max and Simon Mount, Stevie Archuleta and Elizabeth Pacheco will suit up together as Ice Tigers.
The championship game is scheduled to take place at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center rink in Santa Fe March 10. Start time for the winner-take-all game is 7:15 p.m.