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Get over the hump By Ethan Peter

“Get over the hump.”

Mark Fischer, varsity hockey head coach, gave his team this challenge for the 2018-2019 hockey season. Get over the hump that ended his season as Kirkwood’s captain in 2003. Get over the hump that ended seniors Austin Cleveland and Franky Landers’ seasons for the past three years. Get over the hump that no Kirkwood team had crossed for the past 27 years: make it to the Champions Cup semifinals of the Mid-States Club Hockey Association.

Cleveland grew up playing hockey. His father and two uncles played hockey for KHS in the 1980s, which prompted Cleveland to begin playing hockey at age three and join the varsity team his freshman year. When his relatives played, Kirkwood dominated: between the program’s founding in 1972 by Bob McElroy and the 1991 season, Kirkwood won five state championships. Then, following 1992, Cleveland said Kirkwood’s drought began as private school teams improved.

“The dynamic of the game has changed in the current period because of the strength of the private schools,” Cleveland said. “They can bring in kids from anywhere. I know kids who go to CBC, but live in Illinois.”

According to Cleveland, the private schools’ strength in the St. Louis area made it increasingly difficult for public schools to compete. In the 22 seasons between 1996 and 2018, a public school has only won the state championship twice. The private school dominance has seeped into the halls of KHS, where junior Andrew Herweck constantly sees classmates wearing St. Louis University High (SLUH) Hockey hoodies.

“[Our team] hates the SLUH hoodies,” Herweck said. “It’s not that so many people wear them, it’s that people wear them at Kirkwood. We like seeing people support our team and not SLUH.”

Both KHS and SLUH are members of the Municipal Conference, which primarily consists of private schools. Fischer became head coach 4 years ago and began making a culture change to compete with the elite schools. The Pioneers started Monday morning team workouts this season, and Herweck said the team’s offseason work showed early. They won their first three games of the season by a combined total of 18-2, as their offense exploded and their goalies, Tyler Glick, senior, and Mitchell Day, junior, led the team’s defense.

“[Those games] were a statement for our season,” Herweck said. “Our goalies weren’t going to let up goals. All we needed to do was score goals, so to score eighteen goals in the first three games was pretty special.”

However, those games were against public schools and not the other schools from the Municipal Conference. Cleveland said while the goaltending stayed consistent, the Pioneers’ offense slowed down throughout the remainder of the season, and the team went 5-10-1 against their conference opponents. Throughout the difficult regular season, Landers said the team received support from the program’s past.

“The thing about Kirkwood Hockey is that you have alumni coming back every single game,” Landers said. “You know that they’re never going to play Kirkwood Hockey again and you just want to show them that we’re still here. All the people who I played with when I was a freshman, sophomore and junior who never got over the hump would come to support us.”

Cleveland said his family, who are proud Kirkwood alumni, were part of the crowd that helped the team beat St. John Vianney High School 3-0 on senior night. That was one of his last games in his Kirkwood uniform, as his season later ended abruptly after he suffered a concussion. The Pioneers finished the regular season without their captain and then played three games for the initial round of playoffs. They beat Priory High School and Oakville High School, clinching a trip to the quarterfinals, and then faced the defending state champions, SLUH, in the third game of the round robin. Day said the Jr. Billikens came out swinging with a quick goal.

“They scored 13 seconds in, and then right after that they didn’t score any more,” Day said. “They had 41 shots that game, and we ended up winning the game 3-1. That was pretty huge for me after letting a goal in 13 seconds in and kind of recuperating after that and coming out with the win.”

According to Fischer, the upset victory gave the team momentum and confidence they previously lacked going into the two-game quarterfinals against Vianney. The first game ended in a 1-1 tie, which set up a decisive second game where the winner would advance to the semifinals.

The morning of the game, the program’s founder Bob McElroy passed away. His son came and gave the team a speech about how important this game was for the program. Then, Herweck said the team silently took the ice, hoping to win the game for the seniors and McElroy in front of a small Monday night crowd.

“We’re sitting on the bench and we looked across [the ice] and there aren’t many people there, people are just scattered throughout the stands,” Herweck said. “Then all of a sudden you look up 3 minutes later and the place is packed and it got so loud. That meant the world to us.”

As the crowd watched on, Landers took the puck and passed it to Seamus Campbell, junior, who went on a breakaway and scored in the top right corner. Day defended their lead by saving each of Vianney’s 41 shots going into the final stretch of the game.

“The clock was ticking down and I was looking around like ‘this is actually happening,’” Cleveland said. “The clock goes off, the buzzer goes and everyone hops over the boards and just mobs Mitchell. The fans were going crazy, there was insane energy and we just rushed the ice.”

They did what no other Kirkwood team had done in 27 years. They got over the hump.

Landers said the difficult season against multiple private schools helped them reach the semifinals. The top four teams in the state were all from the Municipal Conference, including Kirkwood, and their opponent, SLUH. In the semifinals, the Pioneers lost the first game against the Jr. Billikens 3-0, setting up a must-win second game.

Herweck stepped out on the ice for the second game against SLUH in front of the biggest crowd he had ever seen. They wore hoodies, some of which were the infamous blue SLUH hockey hoodies. On the other side of the rink though, he saw a pack of white Kirkwood hockey hoodies as the Pioneers’ fans packed the stands.

“Everywhere you looked it seemed like it was all white everywhere,” Herweck said. “It was so loud, and [the fans] didn’t lose their pride the entire game.”

The Jr. Billikens scored two consecutive goals in the second period, but the Pioneers struck back with a goal by Trevor Buchanan, senior. With the clock running out, the Pioneers gave up another goal, losing to SLUH 3-1, ending their historic season.

“It was an awesome season,” Cleveland said. “These are friends I’ll have for the rest of my life. You play for your high school, and these are guys you’ll see in college, you’ll see them in your future, you’ll bring your kids back to play for Kirkwood Hockey. We just have a special culture.”

Cleveland, Landers and seven other seniors left the program this year. When they return as alumni, they can say they were members of the team that got over the hump.

Credits:

Bridget Killian

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