Valor Christian celebrates its second consecutive state championship after defeating Fort Collins 4-3 to win the first Class 5A state title game at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland on Thursday. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine
Valor Christian's Logan Buchanan (8) and Ryan Kayser (4) celebrate during Thursday's Class 5A state title game. Buchanan logged two assists and Kayser scored twice in the Eagles' 4-3 defeat of Fort Collins. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine
Defending CHSAA ice hockey state champion Valor Christian had to learn to hit the reset button a couple times during the pandemic-shortened 2021 season.
Two losses in the regular season landed the Eagles as the No. 3 seed in the Class 5A Frozen Four, forcing Valor Christian to exorcise past demons by avenging a loss to second-seeded Regis Jesuit in a semifinal matchup to earn an opportunity to defend their crown.
But the steepest adversity Valor Christian faced came late in a repeat of last year’s single-class state title game against undefeated and top-seeded Fort Collins at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland.
Eagles star forward Evan Pahos appeared to have hit twine and rang the corner of the crossbar and goalpost connection late in the third period. Both teams stopped play as Valor Christian celebrated a go-ahead goal with under five minutes left in regulation. However, the three-goal tie stood as the goal was waved off — conjuring feelings that both teams may return to overtime in the state championship for a second straight year.
Eagles forward Jameson Charles didn’t let that wave of disappointment last long. The senior corralled a loose puck in the slot and snapped a shot over the shoulder of Lambkins goaltender Sam Simon with under three minutes left in regulation, clinching Valor Christian its second consecutive CHSAA state title with a 4-3 win.
It was just Charles’ third goal of the season which proved pivotal as the Eagles (12-2-0) hoisted the inaugural Class 5A state championship.
“There’s adversity everywhere — in sports and life — and it’s learning how to deal with it and learning how to hit the reset button and start again. We fought right back,” said Valor Christian coach George Gwozdecky, who added that his team’s perseverance throughout the season showed up several times on Thursday. “Those are valuable lessons that these young guys have learned throughout the year.”
After last year’s five-overtime thriller that ended with just a single goal, Gwozdecky expected another game that would go down to the wire.
But this time around, both teams had to weather a back-and-forth scoring affair.
The Eagles produced plenty of pressure on Simon in the first period, landing 16 shots on goal to just four by Fort Collins (10-1-0).
Lambkins forward Aidan Beck zapped the momentum Valor Christian had built by scoring on goaltender Jace Ruth 25 seconds into the second period. The Eagles didn’t break through Simon until midway through the middle period when Ryan Kayser, who entered the game with one goal on the season, scored on a power play to knot the score.
Pahos built upon Kayser’s goal by finding the net late in the period. Beck answered Pahos with his second goal of the game, which closed the period with a 2-2 tie.
Kayser proved advantageous when in space, scoring a second goal on the power play halfway through the final period to regain the lead for the Eagles. Fort Collins senior Dennis White intercepted a breakout pass and fired a low shot to the back of the Valor Christian net under three minutes later before Charles’ eventual game-winner.
Simon, who tied a national record with 84 saves in last year’s state title game, was coming off a season-high 48 saves through three overtimes in a semifinal matchup against Chaparral. On Thursday, the Eagles challenged Simon and made the 2020 CHSAA Player of the Year appear mortal. Simon turned aside 36 of 40 shots, while Ruth stopped 16 shots for the win.
Sam Simon (left) fights for control of the puck with Valor Christian's Ryder Price (34) during Thursday's Class 5A state championship game in Loveland. The Lambkins lost 4-3 to the Eagles. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine
Despite falling short of a state title for a second time, Lambkins coach Dylan Strom reflected on his senior group which helped bring the program to new heights over the past two seasons.
“They’ve put a lot of blood sweat and tears into this program and I can’t thank those guys enough for what they’ve done for us,” Strom said. “As a coach, it helps tremendously to have Sam in net. There’s not a chance we’re competing for two state championships without him.”
After the award ceremony, Valor Christian was readying for a team photo at center ice before several Eagles alumni from a year ago ran up to the first row and started banging on the glass. Valor Christian skated over and raucously celebrated with their former teammates who they started their run as state champions with a season ago.
“That was really cool to be able to see our family — players from previous years — to not only support but enjoy the moment with their former teammates,” Gwozdecky said. “They talk about a brotherhood and that’s pretty symbolic.”
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