Battle Mountain captain Jensen Rawlings (11) accepts the CHSAA Class 4A state championship trophy on March 18, following the Huskies' 5-4 overtime defeat of Crested Butte in Loveland. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine
Battle Mountain captain Jensen Rawlings stood on the ice at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland on March 18, soaking in one of the most memorable moments of his life.
Receiving the championship trophy for the first time in program history, the senior was swarmed by his fellow Huskies as they celebrated their 5-4 overtime victory over rival Crested Butte in the first CHSAA Class 4A ice hockey state championship game.
“To be able to turn around and see the boys that you battled with through the highs and lows of the season, and played with since you were 5 — to see those guys, lift the trophy, and celebrate with them — was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget," Rawlings said.
Flooding through his mind was a season full of highs and lows, canceled games, opportunities squandered, and then an unexpected postseason opportunity.
It ended with Rawlings at center ice, in celebration, but it began somewhere vastly different — a conference call on Zoom last spring.
The CHSAA Legislative Council met virtually in May 2020 to discuss changing the landscape of prep ice hockey in Colorado. They unanimously voted 77-0 to realign the league's sanctioned high school hockey teams into two classifications, instead of continuing with the existing one-class system, and the programs were split into six new conferences — three for each class — to generate greater parity across a league that had seen just 16 different programs reach the state quarterfinals over the past six seasons and only six different champions over the past 13.
Based on factors such as school enrollment, location and competitive history, the state's 37 CHSAA-sanctioned teams were divided into two classes with the 20 bigger, more storied programs placed in Class 5A, while 17 smaller and less-established teams were placed in Class 4A.
For Rawlings, Battle Mountain being placed in Class 4A seemed to be an appealing scenario.
“We’re telling our guys ‘we have what it takes. This is our year. We can really do this,’” Rawlings said. “We had those expectations going into the season.”
On paper, however, it seemed like Rawlings' expectations could be insurmountable. Though Battle Mountain ended the 2019-20 season as the second-highest ranked team in the CHSAANow.com state rankings among the new Class 4A schools at No. 14, the Huskies saw their top five scorers graduate and depart, and out of 146 combined points scored last year, only 39 were tallied by returning players.
“For me, this championship isn't just about this team, it's about every team and every player who's ever worn black and gold.”
--Derek Byron, coach of Battle Mountain
When the puck dropped on Battle Mountain’s pandemic-shortened CHSAA season in January, Rawlings' expectations didn’t seem far from reality.
The Huskies won five of their first six games, outscoring their opponents 28-13. Their only decision that didn't end in the win column was a 2-2 tie with Glenwood Springs, a team Battle Mountain defeated 3-1 in a rematch six days later. Battle Mountain was also the top-ranked team in the Class 4A rankings.
“It was a lot of pressure. We had to go out every game and prove that we deserved to be No. 1,” Rawlings said. “At the same time, a lot of teams were ready for our game. They wanted to get an upset against the No. 1 team. So every team came out strong and came out hard.”
It was Steamboat Springs that dealt the first of just two total blemishes to the Huskies this past season, as the Sailors beat Battle Mountain 4-2 on Feb. 19.
Worse yet, the wound was self-inflicted. The Huskies committed seven penalties in the game's first two periods, including a 10-minute major and game misconduct penalty. The Sailors took advantage of the situation with two power-play goals in the last two minutes of the first period and never relinquished the lead.
“We were getting into this too comfortable zone where the team was approaching games, thinking ‘whatever,’” said Battle Mountain coach Derek Byron.
Byron said the loss turned into a positive, however, knocking the cobwebs away from a team that may have been thinking the season might be easy.
“We refocused a little bit and started to get back to how we wanted to play. The first six games, yeah we won them, but I don’t think we were truly a team yet. I think we were just trying to figure each other out,” Byron said. “The next game they were more willing to fight for each other and work together. They kind of just all came together and decided that’s not the team they wanted to be.”
The team responded on Feb. 20, as Battle Mountain amassed a season-high 53 shots on goal en route to a 7-1 triumph over Aspen.
Goaltender Logan Gremmer (pictured) recorded his first shoutout of the season in a state tournament semifinal against Kent Denver to set up Battle Mountain's championship bid on March 18. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine
The team's second defeat came on March 9.
Battle Mountain goaltender Logan Gremmer hopped on the team bus for the three-hour trek to Jorgenson Ice Rink. There, then-undefeated and newly No. 1-ranked Crested Butte was waiting with the Mountain Conference Championship hanging in the balance.
“It was a long bus ride, and there was just a lot of nerves and emotion on the bus before we got there,” Gremmer said. “We knew we had to play but we came out flat-footed.”
The Titans blitzed Battle Mountain early, using their size and strength advantage to knock the Huskies off the puck and disrupt Gremmer.
At 8:51 in the first period, Gremmer took a penalty for goalie interference and moments later Crested Butte’s Colm Piccaro redirected a shot in front of the net to take a 1-0 lead. The floodgates opened and less than four minutes later the Titans lead ballooned to a three-goal advantage en route to an eventual 5-1 triumph.
“We got intimidated by them. We didn’t play our game,” Rawlings said. “We got a little scared and I think it showed at the end of the game that we just weren’t the team that we knew we are."
With the playoff field shrunken to just four teams from each class competing in a Frozen Four due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning just the three conference winners and one at-large team chosen — based on RPI, and the MaxPreps and CHSAANow.com rankings — would enter the Class 4A state tournament.
The Huskies assumed their season was over.
“I gave a postgame speech saying it’s been an honor to lead you guys, an honor to play with each and every one of you,” Rawlings said. “It was very emotional in the locker room because we thought we were done. We looked at the standings even after the game and thought there’s no way we’re gonna make the playoffs.”
Jensen Rawlings shares the championship trophy with his teammates on March 18. With their 5-4 overtime defeat of Crested Butte, the Huskies were the inaugural winners of the state's Class 4A ice hockey title. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine
After a week of two light practices to prepare for the outside chance of a tournament berth, the team found out on March 12 they had made the Frozen Four as the team with the at-large bid and that they'd play Kent Denver.
“We’ve been given this chance and we’ve got to make the most of it,” Rawlings said to the team in the practices following the announcement.
The Huskies didn't waste their opportunity.
Gremmer stopped 22 shots, helping Battle Mountain to a 2-0 defeat of second-seeded Kent Denver in their semifinal matchup on March 17 to reach the Frozen Four title game. It was the junior’s first shutout of the season and he called it the best game of hockey he has ever played.
Gremmer and his teammates tried to get the best rest they could before waking up for a team meeting the following morning.
“We were so nervous. You could feel the butterflies in your teammate’s stomach,” Gremmer said.
Battle Mountain, however, was no stranger to playing in the state final. In fact, the Huskies had been there three times, losing all three times and twice in overtime.
Byron played on one of those teams — in 2005. He addressed the heartbreak he felt and urged his players to do everything they can not to experience the same pain.
“We talked about my experience as a player, losing in the finals and carrying it with me. Until now, I’ve carried it with me," Byron said. "You just don't want that feeling. When you get this close, you just want to make sure you finish it."
Just 3 minutes, 50 seconds into the championship game it looked like heartbreak may come again. A knuckling shot from the blue line flipped past Gremmer, giving Crested Butte a 1-0 lead.
It didn't help that Battle Mountain hadn’t once come back from a scoring deficit to win a game this season.
“As soon as [Steamboat Springs and Crested Butte scored on us previously] it was like we lost right there. It would take 10 minutes for the team to recover,” Byron said. “Not this time. As soon as the puck dropped, they were over it. They didn’t care. They knew what they were there to do.”
The Huskies came back from a one-goal deficit not once but three times to win in the bonus period.
"It was shocking. It's pure joy," Byron said. "For me, waiting as long as I did, I was speechless. I didn't have anything.
"For me, this championship isn't just about this team, it's about every team and every player who's ever worn black and gold."
As Rawlings was mobbed by his teammates that Thursday night, it may have felt like every player in the program's history was celebrating alongside him. And, for Byron, in a way they were.
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