CRANFORD - Third time was the charm for the Cranford High School Ice Hockey program.
After back-to-back losses in the Kelly Cup finals to Millburn, the Cougars found themselves again in the championship round, but this time, against a new opponent, Verona-Glen Ridge. In their two earlier season matchups, Verona-Glen Ridge defeated Cranford 5-2 and 8-0, but nothing was going to stop the Cougars from reaching one of their pre-season goals.
"There’s no question the highlight was seeing these kids make their goal a reality by winning a Kelly Cup and defeat a team that beat them twice by a margin of 13-2," said head coach Mike Ozolnieks. "They understood what it would take this year and had a mindset that nothing was going to stand in their way. That celebration was an accumulation of all the bitter losses that came before and was proof to themselves that hard work and preparation are the recipe of results."
The successful season was led by the nine seniors, especially senior caption Luke "The Big Chief" Pachkowski, who according to coach Ozolnieks, "set the pace for the rest of the team to follow." Pachkowski led the team in points with 21 (eight goals, 13 assists), but the offense as a whole was a collaboration of the entire roster. 16 players registered at least one point and 13 scored a goal.
"They wanted to be the senior class that would change the narrative for this program, and they set the foundation for the way we play the game," added Ozolnieks.
Through Ozolnieks first two seasons at the helm, he has led the Cougars to a 22-19-6 record.
"I’ve been coaching travel hockey for many years at all levels, so the coaching aspect is not much different," said Ozolnieks. "The main difference was our preparation from workouts in the offseason, to more time on the ice for practice during the season, to film sessions studying our own game as well as our opponents. I believe every team is different and requires a different approach, and the same will be true for next year. This year was just a matter of the boys trusting me and buying into the team culture we’re trying to build."
Coach Ozolnieks will have some big holes to fill next year with the graduation of nine seniors, including his starting goalie Harry Devenny, leading scorer Michael Schneider, and the captain Luke Pachkowski.
"We have big spots to fill, there’s no getting around that," Ozolnieks said. "We told the younger players at the end of this season that it’s up to them to step up and fill the voids."
"We’re changing the way we do things around here, and I believe a Kelly Cup is just the start for this program. We had a 'Why not us?' mentality this season with a belief that the cup was ours and other teams were trying to take it from us. I don’t think it will be long before we begin to start having that same mentality about Mcinnis, county and even state trophies. This senior class set the foundation for this program and it’s up to every senior class following them to carry the torch."