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Combined hockey club turns local rivalry into harmony

By: Timothy Pontzer | Rochester Post | Published December 13, 2016

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ROCHESTER — Since its inception in 1970, Rochester Adams has targeted Rochester High as its chief rival. The feeling is mutual, as the pair has have many battles across sports.

A 3.5-mile stretch of roads separates the local foes — except on the ice.

The Rochester United hockey team is a combined effort, comprised of 11 Highlanders and 10 Falcons. Entering its seventh year of play, the club has found success with the alliance.

“We definitely have a mantra of one team, one fight,” coach Jason Kowalski said. “As soon as you get in here and put the ‘RU’ on, it becomes one unit and everyone quickly forgets which school they just left. It is very refreshing to see how everyone works together.”

The cohesion is evident at the very top, as the squad is co-captained by a pair of seniors who will walk across different stages at graduation.

Center Matthew Hawke (Rochester) and winger Michael Rittner (Adams) both wear the “C” on their jerseys, leading a unit that takes the “United” on its chest to heart.

“The beef between the schools is pretty constant, and we like to talk trash about the other sports,” Rittner said. “But once we get in the locker room, we become one team and are willing to play for each other.”

Both captains remarked that the annual meetings between the two schools in football and basketball are conversation pieces. Hawke, a member of the Rochester baseball team, was quick to point out that his Falcons defeated the Highlanders in the regional final on June 11.

Despite that, they agreed that their situation reaped the benefits of getting the best talent that each side had to offer.

“It is unique, but it makes it fun too,” Hawke said. “It is nice to see how people from both schools buy in. We’ve been able to draw a huge combined student section.”

Hawke and Rittner both earned All-State honors last season. Kowalski pencils them in the lineup together, sharing the top line.

“We feed off each other,” Rittner said. “We play different styles, but we really complement each other’s game. We have developed a trust out there.”

Their coach agreed, citing their relationship as something that made his jump from the bench of Harrison Township L’Anse Creuse to RU quite smooth.

“They are great leaders, incredible motivators and have very good chemistry between them,” Kowalski said. “It is nice to return two of the top three point-getters on the team for last year; it really made my transition that much easier. When you have senior captains that are willing to do all of the little things, it really is a plus for your program.”

Kowalski coached at L’Anse Creuse for two seasons before participation died down and the team folded. Now that team has re-emerged with a similar model to Rochester, combining with Macomb L’Anse Creuse North to form a “United” team. Kowalski is thrilled to begin with RU, saying its seven strong seasons showcase an opportunity.

“You couldn’t ask for a better situation to walk into,” Kowalski said. “This is an established program, and we also have a competitive JV team. There is great development here, and everyone knows this team is a winner.”

Rochester United has either won outright or shared the Oakland Activities Association Red Division title in every season of existence.

“My goal is just to continue the tradition here,” Kowalski said. “First and foremost, we want to win the OAA Red. Last year we were in a three-way tie for it; this year we would like to have it to ourselves.”

Last year, RU fell to Novi Detroit Catholic Central in the regional final of the state playoffs. The program has never won a regional crown in its history, something this year’s team would like to change.

“We want to win the league, hopefully outright,” Hawke said. “Then, we want to go deep in the playoffs. No game is easy there, but we would like to meet CC again and then beat them. We definitely have the team to do it, and we know that everyone is willing to work hard.”

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