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CHSAA Player of the Year Sam Simon develops into elite goaltender, team leader for Fort Collins

By Thaddeus Carroll, SportsEngine, 05/04/20, 1:30AM MDT

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Hub exclusive: Simon went from stopping shots in his driveway to leading the Lambkins to their first Frozen Four and state title game, where he tied a national saves record.

Fort Collins goalie Sam Simon had an elite season which included him stopping 84 shots in the CHSAA state championship game in March. Photo courtesy of Paul Shepardson Photography

Fort Collins goalie Sam Simon had an elite season which included him stopping 84 shots in the CHSAA state championship game in March. Photo courtesy of Paul Shepardson Photography

On a Tuesday evening in mid-March, Fort Collins goalie Sam Simon skated onto one of the biggest stages in Colorado high school hockey and found his spot between the pipes at the Pepsi Center. Little did he know that he’d dazzle fans for the next three and a half hours with one of the greatest prep hockey performances of all time.

Simon set a state record with 84 saves that night, an encore performance to a season in which his love of hockey, a tireless work ethic and a desire to avoid letting down his teammates were among traits that made him the heart and soul of the Lambkins. His steady performance this season not only made him one of the top goalies in the state but also helped a Fort Collins squad evolve from a team with unproven ability to compete with some of Colorado’s top prep programs to a team that reached its first Frozen Four and ended the year as the state tournament runner-up.

“He has a maturity you don’t see in someone who is 16 or 17 years old. He stepped up to be the heartbeat of the team completely,” Lambkins coach Dylan Strom said. “(His teammates) responded to his mentality of always being there and doing the little things.”

Simon’s reputation was put to the test in the Colorado High School Activities Association’s (CHSAA) state title game against Valor Christian, a team the state high school coaches had No. 1 in their final rankings of the season.

The junior lived up to the billing against the Eagles with a performance — 45 saves in regulation and 39 more through more than four overtime periods — that left opposing forward Evan Pahos asking one question: Are we ever going to get one by this guy? 

“We tried to emphasize what we thought might be his weakness, which was rebound control, but he was really good (that night),” Pahos said. “And his movement side to side was amazing. He stopped every backdoor chance and everything else we had.”

That was until late in the fifth overtime, when Pahos sneaked Valor Christian’s 85th shot past Simon’s outstretched pad and into the bottom right corner of the net, ending the game in the Eagles’ favor. The outcome, however, did nothing to tarnish Simon’s unbelievable outing, even for Pahos. 

“To be honest, it was more relief than anything knowing we finally broke him down,” he said.

After the goal, Sam crumpled to the ice with his teammates, believing he hadn’t done enough for his team.

“He 100% put (the loss) on himself,” Strom said. “That just shows the guy Sam is.”

He has a maturity you don’t see in someone who is 16 or 17 years old. He stepped up to be the heartbeat of the team completely."

 

--Fort Collins coach Dylan Strom on Sam Simon

National recognition

Simon left the ice in tears, but his performance had set the hockey world abuzz. He hadn’t realized just how special it was until three hours later, when he checked his phone and saw a CO Hockey Hub tweet that read the goalie may have established a national record. 

His save total tied a national mark set 33 years ago by Flint Northern (Michigan) goaltender Jamey Ramsey on Jan. 1, 1987, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The Colorado Avalanche Twitter account also gushed over his performance and ESPN anchor John Buccigross mentioned Simon, too.

The miraculous mark was a worthy achievement for a journey that started more than 10 years earlier with some brotherly fun just outside the Simon home.

Starting in the street


Photo submitted by Sam Simon

Sam’s older brother Joe was the first in the family to play hockey — and it wasn’t the ice variety. Joe was 6 years old when he laced up his first pair of roller blades. He was followed by middle brother Patrick and later Sam, who is four years younger than Joe.

“Joe really liked it and I really liked Joe, so I wanted to be just like him,” said Sam, who took up the sport at age 4. 

The Simon boys joined their dad and some neighborhood friends to play street hockey in the driveway or cul de sac almost every day. Only rain or snow stopped the games. 

Sam was quickly anointed family goalie because his older siblings wanted to practice shooting on a goal, and it was a role he came to love, especially the memories of the road trips to Colorado Springs where he’d play in all-day street hockey tournaments with his brothers.

At age 12, Simon transitioned to ice hockey and was a goalie for Northern Colorado Youth Hockey and the Arvada Hockey Association. Two years later, he reached the prep ranks, where he was the goalie for Fort Collins’ first junior varsity squad in the winter of 2017.

Freshman and sophomore jump

Strom immediately noticed Simon’s potential. He had the “it” factor and not because of his physical prowess but because of relentless commitment to playing goalie.

“You could see when he switches to game mode, he just pours his heart and soul into it,” Strom said.

Simon had a great freshman year with Fort Collins, posting a .938 save percentage and 1.66 goals-against average. He continued honing his skills by attending goalie camps and put time into off-ice training. At 6-foot-3, Simon needed to move differently in goal than shorter counterparts, but he improved substantially in the offseason and earned an early taste of varsity hockey. 

As a sophomore, Simon split time with Blake Haan, one of more than a dozen seniors on a Lambkins team with high hopes for success that year.

In nine regular-season games, he posted six wins, a 2.99 GAA and a .907 save percentage to help Fort Collins finish the season with a 13-4-2 overall record and a third seed in the state tournament. But the most significant stats of his season were to come in his next game.

After sitting on the bench in Fort Collins’ 7-1 victory over Mountain Vista in the opening round of the state tournament, Simon started the Lambkins’ second-round matchup against sixth-seeded Dakota Ridge and things broke down like he had never experienced. He allowed seven goals on 19 shots, including one to break a 6-6 tie with 90 seconds remaining in regulation time to sink the team’s state title aspirations.

“It was the worst game I’ve ever played,” Simon said.

This year’s surprise

Strom discussed the defeat with Simon following the game and the two identified what needed to be done to avoid another last-minute lapse. Another offseason of training prepped Simon for the task, one that came with a new role: Team captain — a rarity at the goaltending position — on a squad that had just one senior returner and was not believed to be a factor in the state title chase.

“We were pretty skeptical coming into this year, considering we lost so many guys,” said Lambkins teammate and co-captain Nolan Williamson.

Expectations quickly elevated when Fort Collins beat perennial state contender Cherry Creek 4-2 in the season opener. Simon stopped 29 shots, creating a blueprint for success that Fort Collins followed for the rest of the season.

He posted a .949 save percentage — third-best in the state among goaltenders who faced at least 50 shots — in the regular season. Simon was a stone wall for Fort Collins, which averaged a paltry 1.81 goals allowed per game — the fifth lowest mark in the state — despite ranking in the top third in total shots on goal allowed.

Simon continued his stingy play in the state tournament, where he allowed just four goals on 126 shots, including one in a 2-1 double-overtime victory against Cherry Creek in the quarterfinals.

“He’s one of the best goalies I’ve ever seen at our age,” Williamson said.

Opposing coaches agreed and named Simon the CHSAA Player of the Year. He also garnered all-state and Pinnacle Conference first team honors after finishing the season with a 13-4-1 record, a 1.91 GAA and a .957 save percentage.

Photo submitted by Sam Simon

Photo submitted by Sam Simon

The future

Simon’s performance at state hasn’t drawn the attention of just the media. Many junior scouts have asked Strom for Simon’s contact info, leaving the coach and player trying to figure out what will happen next. 

“Of course, I’d love to have him back (with Fort Collins),” Strom said. “But it’s hard to know — is that what’s best for him?”

Simon hasn’t made any decisions on what next season could hold and with hockey on pause for the foreseeable future, he will be taking his time to decide what’s next.

Weeks removed from the title game, Simon has had time to reflect on the record-setting performance and his standout season. He said he changed his priorities for the year, adding one to complement the traits that had defined him: Enjoy the game.

“I just wanted to have fun, and if I was having fun I was playing well,” he said.


To see more of Paul Shepardson's photos he can be found on Twitter at: @Shepardsonp, and on Instagram at: paulshepardson_photography

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