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Birmingham

March 14, 2012

One year after heartbreak, Brother Rice hockey captures Division 2 crown

By Mike Moore
C & G Sports Writer

» click to enlarge «
A year ago, the Warriors fell in the D-2 final to Wyandotte, but this year’s group got to celebrate with the championship trophy after beating Grosse Pointe South 4-1.

PLYMOUTH — Since March 12, 2011, guys on the Birmingham Brother Rice hockey team vowed to return to Compuware Arena, promised themselves that the numbness felt while accepting a runner-up trophy a year ago would be replaced one day with elation none of them had ever known.

And on March 10, 2012, one year after having it slip through their fingers, the Warriors stood at center ice, helmets, gloves and sticks scattered in every direction and clutched the Division 2 championship trophy.

“Last year, I was crying tears of sadness,” senior defenseman Chris Wilberding said moments after the Warriors beat Grosse Pointe South 4-1 in the Division 2 final. “This year, it’s tears of joy.”

“It feels awesome,” senior forward Mackenzie MacEachern said, smiling. “I don’t even know how to describe it.”

When MacEachern’s junior year ended, he and the rest of the Rice team stood dazed at Compuware while watching Wyandotte-Roosevelt celebrate a 4-1 victory and state title.

MacEachern had every opportunity to forgo his senior season at Rice and pursue his chance to play at the junior level.

“I came back for one reason,” the Mr. Hockey candidate said in January.

Mobbed by his teammates at the bottom of the pile following the final horn, the reason seemed worth it.

“Oh yeah. It was definitely worth it,” said MacEachern, who had one of the best weekends in state finals history, scoring four goals in the semifinal and one in the title game, wrapping up his senior season with 42 goals and 48 assists. “This is one of the best feelings of my life.”

“This is incredible,” said coach Lou Schmidt Jr., who guided Rice to its last title in 2005, a 4-3 overtime win against Trenton High. “This is a group of guys that said it wasn’t going to happen again here. … Our goal all season was to practice well, to play well and to constantly get better. Really, I think getting better became a habit for these guys.”

While Schmidt said his team hit the ground running when the season started, the Warriors were just 5-4 following a Dec. 21 loss to Novi Detroit Catholic Central.

It was a loss, looking back, that came at the perfect time.

“That was our last game before winter break,” Schmidt said, smiling, implying his guys’ focus wasn’t entirely present. “When the guys came back, though, I think they were refreshed and refocused.”

Whatever it was, it certainly worked.

The Dec. 21 setback was the last of the season for Rice, which closed out the year on a torrid 20-0-1 run.

“I haven’t changed my socks in two months,” Schmidt joked when asked what propelled his team on its remarkable finish.

At times, the Warriors made it look easy.

Their vast collection of depth, speed and overall talent was no match for many opponents along the way.

But in the final, they met a South squad that was riding a 20-game unbeaten streak of its own, and after tying the final at 1-1 late in the first period, appeared to belong right with Rice in this battle for supremacy.

But as the second period started, so did South’s demise.

The Warriors took their play to a new level, outshooting the Blue Devils 16-2 while getting goals from junior Russell Cicerone and MacEachern to build a 3-1 lead heading into the third.

Fifteen minutes remained, but by all counts, this game was long over.

“That was a different caliber team than we’ve seen all year,” South coach James Bufalino admitted afterward. “I don’t think we had our best game, but Brother Rice is on a different level.”

Cicerone added the final goal, an empty-net tally, with 15 seconds remaining in the game. Moments later, the crowd was in a frenzy and the pile-up in front of the net had begun.

“It’s such a relief,” said junior Thomas Ebbing, who will too have to decide to return to Rice next year or leave for the junior level. “I remember last year like it was yesterday. That was one of the worst experiences of my life. This, this is one of the best.”

“The pressure to get here is so intense,” Schmidt said. “To go through the battles that we did, the battles it requires to even have the chance to play for a championship. This is just awesome.”

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mike Moore at mmoore@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1038. Twitter Follow Mike on Twitter.