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Valor Christian claims Tiers 1 and 2 titles at ninth CPHL Twisted Wrister tournament

By Trevor Squire, SportsEngine, 09/08/20, 5:15PM MDT

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Hub exclusive: The Eagles seem to be ushering in a new era of Colorado high school hockey.

Valor Christian took flight in a defeat of Regis Jesuit to claim the Tier 1 championship at this year's CPHL Twisted Wrister Tournament. Photos by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine

Valor Christian took flight in a defeat of Regis Jesuit to claim the Tier 1 championship at this year's CPHL Twisted Wrister Tournament. Photos by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine

Valor Christian emerged the winner on Monday in a rematch of last year’s Colorado Prep Hockey League’s Twisted Wrister Tournament championship game.

The Eagles, coming off their first Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) state championship in program history last March, were unbeaten entering Monday’s final Tier 1 game of the tournament at The Ice Ranch in Littleton and cruised to a 4-1 victory over Regis Jesuit in the ninth year of the tournament.

The win was evidence of Valor Christian's emergence as a powerhouse program after coach George Gwozdecky took over coaching the Eagles in 2015. Gwozdecky tipped his hat to Regis Jesuit coach Dan Woodley for being a source of advice after he coached 19 years at the University of Denver and served a two-year stint as assistant coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning before embarking on a prep coaching career in the Centennial State. 

“I felt like it was to the advantage of Colorado hockey, and high school hockey, for someone like George to come into our program for insight and get him up to speed,” Woodley said. 

Regis Jesuit has played in eight of the past 12 state championship matchups, winning six state titles and two USA Hockey national championships in 2013 and 2015. Woodley said that winning on the national stage has helped build the awareness of Colorado prep hockey and players gain recognition.

“They’ve had a long-standing identity as the state power,” Gwozdecky said. “That’s a real good thing for high school hockey in Colorado to have teams like Valor, Fort Collins, Cherry Creek Monarch — to name a few — who have risen to their level of competitiveness so they can compete with a Regis program who has been dominant for this decade.”

Valor Christian's rise to prominence started with a 4-3 overtime loss to Regis Jesuit in the CPHL Twisted Wrister finale last fall. The Eagles came into that game unbeaten but fell in a raucous environment that was symbolic of the budding rivalry forming between the two prep programs — even in a fall exhibition tournament. 

“It’s been a real good relationship between the teams and the staffs — certainly when we get on the ice with each other it can get tense and competitive — but that’s what you want from a fellow rival,” Gwozdecky said.

The Eagles and Regis Jesuit split Twisted Wrister tourney games last season, including the title game bout. The Eagles return nine forwards and seven defensemen from last winter's roster, including leading scorer Evan Pahos.

Pahos took a challenge to heart last season when the Valor Christian coaching staff was trying to coax the center to become a better defender. Pahos suggested he be moved to the blue line — an extreme Gwozdecky warmed up to in time.

“His reaction to that was ‘you want me to be a better defensive player, why don’t I try being a defenseman?’” Gwozdecky said with a chuckle, acknowledging the absurdity of the 16-year-old’s willingness to switch positions at the time. “That conversation got the ball rolling in moving him back at times in games. We got more comfortable in time.”

Pahos was moved to defense after three sessions of overtime in last year’s CHSAA state championship, a move that paid dividends as he scored the winning goal against Fort Collins in the fifth overtime, displaying instincts which included jumping after a loose puck, silky stick-handling and vision to finish despite skating on tired legs.

Gwozdecky called Pahos the Eagles' most skilled defenseman and player while acknowledging he still has a ways to go to becoming a “200-foot player.”

“There’s no doubt — over the course of last year — he grew his desire to become a more well-rounded player. He’s not there yet, but certainly his understanding and desire to is.”

Pahos scored four goals and added four assists in the Eagles’ five tournament games over Labor Day weekend. He tallied two assists in the win against the Raiders on Sunday. Teammate Blake Rollison scored twice, while Valor Christian goaltender Jace Ruth stopped 18 shots.

Gwozdecky said he was impressed by Ruth and freshman goaltender Cooper Robinson, both of whom are new to the program's Tier I roster this season. Ruth stopped 65 of 70 shots faced in three games, while Robinson made 36 saves on 38 shots in two games.

Carter Schick scored Regis Jesuit's only goal against the Eagles and goalie Gage Bussey had 18 saves. Andrew Gleason was the Raiders’ leading scorer in the tournament with five goals and four assists.  

While it’d be convenient for Valor Christian to hang its hat on its Labor Day weekend success, Gwozdecky knows his team has plenty left to accomplish. 

“It’s barely September. We’re pleased with our progress — it’s nice to win the tournament — but I don't know how much it means in the big picture," he said. "From watching the teams in the tournament, it’s going to be a very competitive season when it gets underway.”

Woodley added that the growing parity in Colorado high school hockey has benefited the league and players alike.  

“We’re coaching kids up. Now that there’s so many good coaches, good teams that have structures around them — we’re starting to get kids in the NAHL and USHL,” he said. “The level of cooperation amongst the coaches and the real desire to see each program get to the best they can be has helped with that — sharing the wealth makes everyone better."

Valor Christian players celebrate their 3-2 triumph over Glenwood Springs to win the Tier 2 championship at the CPHL Twisted Wrister Tournament on Monday.

Valor Christian players celebrate their 3-2 triumph over Glenwood Springs to win the Tier 2 championship at the CPHL Twisted Wrister Tournament on Monday.

Eagles Tier 2 team takes top prize

Valor Christian's Tier 2 team proved that it’s not how you start but how you finish.

The Eagles went without victory in their first two games before rattling off four consecutive wins, capped by a 3-2 defeat of Glenwood Springs on Monday to claim the Tier 2 title in the CPHL Twisted Wrister Tournament at The Ice Ranch in Littleton.

Despite Valor Christian's coming into the tournament’s championship game with momentum, outscoring competition 15-4 on their winning streak, the Eagles found themselves in a hole after Demons forward Colter Strautman found the net with two minutes, 30 seconds left in the first period.

Valor Christian responded 14 seconds later with a goal from Colton Ackerman to knot the game headed into the fist intermission.

Damien Hirschfield and Alex Alfieri fueled Valor Christian to its first and only lead. The duo combined to assist John Baird who scored midway through the second period on the penalty kill. Hirschfield then scored the game-winner off a feed from Alfieri on a power play to give the Eagles a two-goal cushion.

Max Mencimer cut Valor Christian's lead to one goal with under three minutes left in regulation, but the Eagles persevered.

Glenwood Springs goalie Daelan Renzi handled all the pressure Valor Christian could throw at him, stopping 37 shots. Eagles goaltender Carter Bergstrom had 18 saves.

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