When it comes to postseason play, Atholton doesn’t simply want to win. The Raiders want to win in style.
That’s what happened last year, when they captured the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League championship with a 15-2 season that included a 6-2 victory over Huntingtown in the final game.
As part of his team’s title run, Atholton Coach Bud Michels held up his end of a bargain he made upon taking the position three years earlier. Once Atholton advanced to the Howard Cup, the conference’s tournament championship, the coaches donned tuxedos for the remainder of the playoffs.
With the fifth-ranked Raiders (9-1) getting ready for next week’s Howard tournament, Michels has put the same deal in place again.
“I don’t think it’s superstitious. It’s just a fun thing, and we do it,” Michels said. “And so the gauntlet’s been laid down. I said that if you guys want us to wear a tuxedo, we’ll wear it, but you’d better win. We’ll wear it until we lose.
“[The players] wanted to do it again this year. We have to get to the Howard Cup, and that’s when we’ll be looking dapper again.”
At the end of last season, the Atholton players all received black tuxedo T-shirts to commemorate their championship. And to add some variation, a return trip to the MSHL title game this year will put the coaches in tuxedos with white ties and black tails.
“I think it gives us a little extra motivation to get back to the championship,” senior defenseman Jake Mills said.
The Raiders lost several contributing seniors from last season, including Michels’s son Zach, a second-team All-Met selection at forward. That hasn’t stopped them from securing the top seed and a first-round bye in the tournament.
Michels attributes the success not to fancy duds, but to a deep and well-rounded roster.
Some of that comes from having good talent available, always an issue for public school teams. It also stems, Michels said, from his commitment to finding meaningful ice time for all of his players, to make sure they are ready down the road.
“A lot of teams only play the best players, and that’s it,” he said. “We play everybody . . . so they understand the system and so when they come in next year and the seniors are gone, we don’t have to teach them something new. They know it.”
The result is a team Michels believes is capable of compensating for any lack of individual talent with a cohesiveness that comes from everyone, including underclassmen, being involved.
It’s something Mills has noticed through his four years at Atholton.
“When I was a freshman and sophomore, you’re the young guy and you’ve got to earn respect and you know how it feels to finally earn that and have everyone appreciate you,” he said. “It’s the same with these freshmen and sophomores. We appreciate them, and they’ve earned their way into our respect.”
In previous years, Cavaliers Coach Patrick McNeally said, a Spalding victory over a perennial power such as Landon or DeMatha might have been dismissed as a fluke. This season, with a stretch performances like the one Spalding is currently riding, it would be hard for the rest of the league not to take notice.
Spalding, fourth in this week’s rankings, has upset three ranked teams in as many weeks in January. The Cavaliers beat No. 9 DeMatha in back-to-back games Jan. 10 and 11, outscoring the Stags in the two games, 7-2. After a week off for final exams, Spalding returned last week with a 5-4 win over No. 6 Landon, the Bears’ first conference loss of the season.
Along with the wins, the Cavaliers have begun to stockpile momentum as they make their way towards a February postseason schedule that features tournaments for both the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League.
“I think it gives our kids a lot of confidence,” McNeally said. “I think the difference in years past is, sometimes if we were to beat a DeMatha or one of those teams, it was kind of looked at as maybe we kind of got lucky or we caught them on their B day, they didn’t have their A game that day. The difference this year is that we’re gaining confidence. We can play with anybody.”
The Cavaliers have been led offensively for most of the season by Breanainn McNeally, the head coach’s son who leads the team in scoring with 14 goals this season, and John Sage, who is tied with Breanainn for the team lead in points. Despite their success, Spalding’s head coach has worked hard to make sure the momentum doesn’t go to his team’s head and that the Cavaliers don’t peak too early.
“We have a midnight rule, where each game, even if it was a big win or a huge loss, we try to forget about it by midnight,” Breanainn said. “[Patrick] introduced it, but the leaders on the team, we’ve definitely taken it and run with that.”
Rankings: The Post Top 10
Atholton enters next week’s Howard Conference tournament as the top seed and will enjoy a first-round bye before playing in a semifinal game Tuesday. A win there would let the Raiders defend their conference title next Friday night. . . . Stone Bridge allowed three goals last Friday against Centreville/Fairfax, doubling the Bulldogs’ total goals allowed this season to six.
1. Gonzaga (15-3-1) LW: 1
2. Stone Bridge (8-0) LW: 2
3. Churchill (13-2) LW: 4
4. Spalding (11-2) LW: 8
5. Atholton (9-1) LW: 5
6. Landon (10-3-2) LW: 3
7. Briar Woods (6-1-1) LW: 6
8. Woodbridge (8-0-1) LW: 7
9. DeMatha (13-12-3) LW: 9
10. Langley (6-0) LW: NR