With only one senior on the 2012-13 roster, the Columbus Icemen could have looked at this year as a rebuilding season.
But with several juniors who saw valuable playing time during last year’s run to a Class 5A state runner-up finish, the Icemen have picked up right where they left off. They’re 35-12-4 going into tonight’s Hoosier High School Hockey League Tournament winner’s bracket final.
“I said two years ago after we got done with (Class) 4A, the toughest thing to do in sports is to get back to where you were, especially if where you were is the championship game,” Icemen coach Rich Gordon said. “These guys turned around, and not only did they make it to the championship, they went beyond 4A and made it to 5A, so anything is possible.”
The second-seeded Icemen began the double-elimination tourney last weekend with a 4-0 win against No. 6 Evansville Thunder and a 4-2 victory against No. 3 Cathedral/Chatard. Columbus will play top-seeded Carmel at 7:15 tonight at The Forum in Fishers.
“We’re pretty evenly matched,” junior goalie Braden Phelps said. “We just have to play our game (tonight).”
“I think us and Carmel are pretty tight,” junior forward Tanner Bennett said. “We split with them this year, so it should be pretty fun.”
The winner of tonight’s game advances to the championship game at 1:15 p.m. Sunday. The loser must battle back through the losers’ bracket.
Bennett leads the Icemen with 36 goals and 50 assists. Other top scorers include senior Seth Burton (28 goals, 21 assists), sophomore Ryan Cesarski (22 goals, 18 assists), junior Andrew Schwartz (21 goals, 38 assists), sophomore Skylar Rush (20 goals, 15 assists) and junior Drew Yeley (18 goals, 21 assists).
Phelps is 26-11-2 with 13 shutouts and a 1.79 goals-against average. Freshman backup Luke Fry is 9-1-2 with three shutouts and a 2.55 GAA.
“We’re mostly juniors, so we were expected to be a little more experienced, and I think that’s shown in the way we’ve kept composed throughout the year,” Bennett said.
“We’ve been playing pretty good all year,” Burton said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re finally leveling out and getting everything going right.”
No matter how they finish this weekend, the Icemen will play in the 5A state tournament, which begins next weekend at The Forum. Columbus, which is ranked third in the state, will play round-robin with No. 1 Culver, No. 2 Carmel and No. 4 South Bend St. Joesph’s. The top two teams from those matches will play for the state championship March 10 at Notre Dame.
“Everybody is pretty evenly matched, except for Culver,” Bennett said. “Culver is kind of out there a little bit, so I think it will take our best game to beat Culver.”
“I think our chances are pretty good,” junior left wing Austin Huffer said. “We’ve had a pretty good season, and I think we’re clicking right now.”
The Icemen won their own Fall Foliage Tournament in October and the Steve Scotten Memorial Tournament over Thanksgiving in Fishers. They also traveled to Jamestown, N.Y. for the Scholastic Showcase, but didn’t make it out of pool play there.
“I’m happy with how we’ve played and the teams we’ve beaten,” Phelps said. “We’re just looking forward to going to state and hopefully getting to the final and winning a state championship.”
“Regardless of what happens, it’s been a great year,” Gordon said. “Two of our main goals — winning the league tournament and winning the state tournament — are the next two things we have coming up. No matter what happens, it will be a good year, but that will go a long way toward the measurement.”