FARMINGTON — There’s an emotional aspect associated with this time of the year.
It’s palpable, visible and completely understandable.
With so much on the line, such razor-thin margins of error, winning or losing on this stage can usually bring about tears of joy and heartbreak — often at the same time.
For the Farmington High hockey team, there’s been plenty of both.
For the past month, sadness and shock had gripped the Falcons, forcing them to unite in a way they could never have predicted, all the while putting the successes and failures on the ice in perspective.
But of late, success was all Farmington had known.
A strong game here led to another day, which eventually led to the “slaying of the dragon,” as coach Bill Newton said of his team’s 3-2 upset of Cranbrook in the Division 3 quarterfinals.
Two days later, the Falcons were front and center at Compuware Arena, an underdog turned victor in a 2-1 contest against Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the state semifinals.
The following afternoon, tears would flow as a trophy would rise.
“It’s been crazy,” sophomore forward Jason Petras said shortly after the Falcons completed their playoff ride with a 2-1 victory against Sault Ste. Marie in the D-3 championship game. “I don’t think anybody in Michigan thought we could do this except the guys in this room and the coaches on the bench. … We caught fire at the right time.”
There were few players better than Petras in the postseason run, especially as the opponents got tougher.
He scored the first goal against Cranbrook, the winner in the semifinals, and then both goals in the final game.
But it was his strength off the ice, his personal tragedy, that became the rallying cry for the Falcons.
“Let me tell you a little bit about this young man right here,” Newton said, fighting back tears with his arm around Petras. “About a month ago, he lost his mom (Kim) to colon cancer after a three-year fight. He has been a warrior and the catalyst for this hockey team from that point. … For this young man to come out today and score two goals to win us a state championship. … I can’t be more proud of this young man.”
“She was my No. 1 fan,” Petras said with a smile. “I know she’s watching over me. I know she had something to do with this.”
The goals Newton spoke of both came in the first period.
Petras got Farmington on the board 38 seconds into regulation, and then made it 2-0 late in the opening frame.
“For us, scoring first is huge,” Newton added. His team did just that in all six postseason games. “We aren’t a team that scores a ton, and with (goalie John Lethemon) in there, we’re much better playing with the lead.”
The two-goal advantage was all Lethemon would need.
The senior, who is sure to be in the running for Mr. Hockey after his playoff performance, was brilliant yet again.
His 59-save game in the quarterfinal helped the Falcons past Cranbrook.
His 34 saves in the semifinal earned the Falcons their first appearance in a championship game.
And on March 8, he was beaten just once, 18 seconds into the second period.
He finished the game with 29 saves, the loudest roar during the postgame presentation, and if there was a playoff MVP, the award would have been his.
“It’s a great feeling,” Lethemon said of the state title and the fan support. His name was chanted most of the game, and a chorus of “MVP” chants broke out afterward. “But you can’t call me the MVP, because all these guys have been great.”
“It’s such a relief, such joy right now,” Newton said of the win. “I’m so happy for our kids and our players. To accomplish something like this is pretty special.”
There was a certain calmness the entire playoff run for the Falcons.
They played loose. They played calm. They had fun.
Newton said the passing of Petras’ mother, as well as a cancer diagnoses of himself — he’s been in remission since Christmas after battling colon cancer — helped the team cherish their time on the ice together, helped put in perspective the experiences they were blessed enough to enjoy.
But to be state champs, that was something entirely different.
After all, this was a team that went 12-10-4 last year, fell to Country Day in a playoff opener, and then lost head coach Mark Vellucci when he moved on to take the job at Novi High.
Newton, who’d been with the program as an assistant for years before taking last year off, was the natural successor to Vellucci.
“I knew when I left, the program had to be left in good hands,” Vellucci said before the year started. “Bill is a guy who knows what he’s doing and is a perfect fit. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Vellucci was one of the few thousand fans who packed into Compuware to watch Farmington (21-10-0) claim the first state title in program history.
“It doesn’t even feel real,” Petras said with a smile and a headshake. “It’s like we have to get back to work tomorrow or something. It’s just incredible.”
“These kids are just so important to me right now,” Newton said, again fighting off tears. “Someone asked me earlier if I was nervous, and I said, ‘No. Nervous is when you’re sitting in your doctor’s office to find out if you’re still in remission or not.’ That’s nervous. … We made it real clear to the kids to make sure this is fun. This is one of the greatest things you’ll experience in your life, and to go home with a victory is huge.”