Taos Ice Tigers rip the wheels off LA’s wagon in season finale

Late-game surge by Ice Tigers secures North Star Trophy and Río Grande Cup

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Sometimes in sports, “momentum” reigns supreme. It’s a tricky occurrence that incorporates many different intangible events that have been labeled so by many wise sports minds and heartbroken fans. It’s often seen as luck, coincidence or fate that causes a shift during the course of a game or match that ultimately creates a winner and a loser. It becomes more about internal mettle and less about skill or size – blamed on curses or karma.

In the waning minutes of a contest, most coaches agree that they would prefer to be in the lead instead of playing catch-up against an opponent. This creates several questions that lead to unintended consequences, however, when conservative play causes unwanted results. “How much of a lead is too big to overcome?” Or, “How much time is needed to overcome a particular point deficit?” In the sports world, the crack that occurs when a trailing team seems to grab momentum and inflicts panic on a team that starts to play conservatively is often called “having the wheels fall off.”

Perhaps the most recent collapse that comes to mind is the crushing defeat of the University of New Mexico (UNM) Lobos men’s basketball to the Nevada Wolfpack Jan. 7, when a 17-point lead with 2:42 left in the game was not enough to secure a home win for the Lobos. The impact may have affected the entire season for UNM, which failed to make it into any postseason tournaments despite a favorable 2016-17 start.

In the Pure Division ice hockey championship between the Taos Ice Tigers (10-6-4) and the Los Alamos (LA) Hilltoppers (13-8), the wheels didn’t just fall off for the Hilltoppers – who led 3-1 after two periods – the Ice Tigers ripped the wheels right off the axles to claim the title at neutral Genoveva Chavez Community Center in Santa Fe March 10.

By rule, “A pure team must be comprised solely of full-time students attending the same high school or full-time students that are eligible to play sanctioned varsity high school sports at that school per New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) Rules.” By contrast, Composite Division teams are made of players from more than one public or private school within a geographic area. The two lone Pure Division teams in the New Mexico Interscholastic Ice Hockey League (NMIIHL) are the Ice Tigers and Hilltoppers due to their having only one school district within their respective communities.

A great deal of gamesmanship is added to the competition between Taos and LA with the inclusion of the North Star Trophy as a prize for the winner. And since the Hilltoppers defeated Taos during the elimination round of the Composite Division Tournament in El Paso, Texas, March 4, The ‘Toppers were the current owners of the glossy treasure.

The first period of the March 10 game saw an evenly played match that produced no goals, but more shots on goal for Taos (13-10) and only one penalty (Taos’ Stevie Archuleta for roughing at 2:21).

The second period witnessed an aggressive LA team pound two goals past Taos’ defense at the 12:54 and 8:58 marks to take a commanding lead. At the same time, Los Alamos’ goaltender, Sam Fisher, turned away several shots from the Ice Tigers until Taos’ Ysidro Gravelle powered one into the net at 7:40. The Hilltoppers answered with a goal at 5:16 to close the first two stanzas with a 3-1 lead. Going into the intermission, the Ice Tigers had 33 shots on goal compared to 18 for LA.

When asked if he was nervous going into the intermission down by two goals, coach Mark Richert offered a glimpse of his confidence level and his team’s demeanor inside the locker room.

“I didn’t feel nervous, and I didn’t sense it with the team,” said Richert. “I told the team that they were playing a great game and to trust themselves and their teammates.”

“Max Mount, our goalie, was strutting around before the third period saying what a great time he was having,” Richert said. “That was refreshing to hear because one of my final comments before the game started was to go out and have a good time and support each other.”

That positive theme seemed to follow the team when it returned to the ice, as Taos wasted little time mounting a comeback. Taos’ Robbie Wooldridge blasted an “upstairs” goal from the left wing that ricocheted off the top crossbar in an unmistakable reverberation inside the rink chamber at the 16:30 mark to close the gap at 3-2. A mere four minutes later, Gravelle again found the back of the net to tie the game at 3-3. With 6:48 left in the game, Leandro Richert hit the lead-changing and game-winning goal. Max Mount and Taos’ defensemen finished the job for the Ice Tigers.

“Los Alamos has a great program – kids, coaches, parents – and they gave us fits for long stretches of our three previous meetings this season,” said Richert. The Ice Tigers split with Los Alamos in their four games this year. “But on this evening, I can say we were the better team, outshooting LA by nearly 20 shots.”

In total, the Ice Tigers had 47 shots on goal while the ‘Toppers finished with 29. Max Mount came away from the win with 26 saves on this, his last game defending the pipes for Taos. Mount was joined by Simon Mount (his brother), Stevie Archuleta, Theo Hummel, Elizabeth Pacheco and Jake Danemann as the seniors on the roster playing in their final game for the Ice Tigers. For the evening, Hummel finished with two assists, while Archuleta and Justin “Juice” Lucero each had one.

“Although it was close on the scoreboard and it was thrilling to make the comeback, we deserved the victory on this occasion and, fortunately, the team’s hard work for the entire game resulted in the return of the North Star Trophy and Río Grande Cup to Taos,” said Richert. “We will sleep peacefully this summer ... until the first crisp autumn evenings remind us that ice is on the way and it’s time prove it all once again.”

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