The Wiregrass Ice Hawks, a high school team comprised of players from Wiregrass Ranch (WRH), Wesley Chapel (WCH), Zephyrhills and Pasco high schools, won their division in the Tampa Bay Lightning High School League.
The Hawks beat two teams to make the league’s championship, the Lightning Cup.
They beat two more teams a week later to make the high school state championship.
The only thing the Ice Hawks couldn’t beat? Mitchell High from New Port Richey.
Playing in the Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida (SAHOF) final for the first time, Wiregrass ran out of gas and fell to the Mustangs 5-0 on Feb. 26, in front of a packed, boisterous crowd at Florida Hospital Center Ice (FHCI) off S.R. 56.
It was the Hawks’ third loss to Mitchell in eight days.
“We had a tougher semifinal game (than Mitchell did) this morning (Note-both finalists played other teams in the State semifinals earlier the same day; see below) and that took it out of us,” said Gordie Zimmermann, the team’s head coach and the managing partner at FHCI. “Still, to meet and compete in the state title game, you can’t ask for a better season than that.”
The loss capped a great postseason for the Ice Hawks, who won the Andreychuk Division of the Tampa Bay Lightning High School Hockey League with a 16-6 record. They beat Bradenton Manatee and Tampa Jesuit high schools in the playoffs of that league, before coming up short in the Lightning Cup finale, held at Amalie Arena on Feb. 18, losing 7-4, also to Mitchell.
In the State playoffs at FHCI a week later, the Hawks lost a pool match against Mitchell, 5-4 in overtime, but fought back from that loss to earn a third chance at the Mustangs. in the State title game.
Unfortunately for Wiregrass, after the overtime loss to Mitchell Saturday night, the team had to survive a physically tough 7-4 Sunday morning victory over New Tampa’s Freedom High.
Complicating the matter, one of the Ice Hawks’ top players, forward Gehrig Oppenheimer, was ejected from the win against the Patriots and suspended for the championship game. “Missing one of our front line guys really changed our dynamics,” Zimmermann said.
Fatigue and the loss of Oppenheimer showed, as Mitchell scored in the first four minutes and led 4-0 before the end of the first period.
The Mustangs kept up the pace in the second period, outshooting the Ice Hawks 23-11, but were unable to find the back of the net with any of them.
Still, Zimmermann said his players were able to relish the moment in the third period, playing in what will be their new home in front of an appreciative home crowd. He recalled during a timeout in the final, some of his players told him they were having the best time of their lives.
“Guys like Alex Carr and Alejandro Rivera got a couple of shifts in there (in the final),” Zimmermann said. “There were guys that just wanted to be a part of it.”
In its win over Freedom Sunday morning, Wiregrass fell behind 1-0 before cleaning up a puck that ricocheted off Freedom goalie Dominik Rini to tie things headed to the second period.
Wiregrass took the lead just over a minute into the second period on a shot by Joseph Davis who would earn a hat trick with his three goals against Freedom. Davis also scored two slapshot goals from the point in the Saturday night game against Mitchell to give the Hawks a late 4-3 lead.
Teams from all over the state converged for the two tiers of the State tournament, which was held for the first time ever in our area. As the champion, Mitchell is now headed to the national tournament.
Wiregrass, Freedom, Mitchell and West Boca (Spanish River) competed in the Tier 2 high school division. Tier 2 teams can draw from up to four schools, typically in the same general area (e.g., Freedom‘s team was made up of players from both Freedom and Wharton high schools).
The Tier 1 championships were also held at the same time. Those teams have rosters comprised entirely of athletes that attend a particular school.
North Broward Preparatory won the Tier 1 championship. It was the fourth consecutive year the Coconut Creek-based school captured the Tier 1 title.