Technically, Atholton High School does not have a varsity ice hockey team. But that doesn't mean that a group of about 20 Atholton students, wearing green and yellow Atholton Raiders ice hockey jerseys, can't come together to form the best public school ice hockey team in Maryland.
The Raiders got a chance to prove that on Monday night at the packed Gardens Ice House in Laurel when they defeated Huntingtown, 6-2, for their first Maryland Student Hockey League Capitals Cup championship.
With the win, Atholton became just the third Howard County team to win an MSHL title.
Glenelg won two years ago, and in 1992, Centennial defeated Mount St. Joseph to claim the Tier 1 championship, which combined public and private schools and was discontinued in 2003.
Because ice hockey is not a varsity sport sanctioned by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, the MSHL organizes a league of public school club teams, adhering to MPSSAA rules and regulations whenever possible.
Atholton coach Bud Michels said that being able to work with most of his team through the Howard Huskies club program has helped shorten the learning curve once the MSHL season gets underway.
"The local clubs that support the high schools, such as the Howard Huskies, the Tri-City Eagles and the Metro (Maple Leafs), a lot of those kids in Howard County play for," said Bud Michels. "On my team most of the kids are from the Huskies except for one and (we use) kind of the same system that they provide there."
Atholton's win on Monday night was the culmination of a challenging season which saw regular season losses to defending Howard County champion Marriotts Ridge, 3-1, and Huntingtown, 4-3.
Atholton avenged its loss to Marriotts Ridge in the last game of the regular season, and then did not lose again, winning a close game against River Hill, 4-3, en route to the Howard County Cup finals, where the Raiders handily won their third meeting with Marriotts Ridge, 5-2, to earn the right to represent Howard County in the MSHL Capitals Cup tournament.
"(Marriotts Ridge) was a tough team, very fast and very good goaltending," Atholton's Avery Shepherd said. "So the Howard County Cup got us really prepared for states."
Last Thursday, Atholton defeated Walt Whitman — the same team Glenelg defeated for its championship in 2010 — 3-2 in overtime.
"They were a tough team and we just snuck one in there with two minutes left in (overtime). We were so excited that we couldn't stop smiling," said senior Zach Michels, who scored the winning goal in that game.
The Raiders could only expect Monday's rematch with Huntingtown to be another hardfought struggle, especially after the Hurricanes struck first on a goal by leading scorer Mitchell Fink halfway through the first period.
"We knew they were a tough team, we had to fight for everything we got," said Zach Michels, who missed the first meeting with Huntingtown. "I knew that if we worked together we had it in us."
Atholton tied the game with less than two minutes left in the opening frame on a goal by Brandon Potter, and then scored five unanswered goals to cinch up the trophy.
Atholton's bounty included goals by seniors Avery Shepherd (2) and Brandon Potter (2), junior Jake Mills and sophomore Matt Haney; and assists by Mills, Shepherd, seniors Zach Michels (3) and Nicholas Bogdash (2) and junior Derek Potter.
"We kind of had a method to our madness. We started off with a two-man forecheck and kind of wore them down a little bit, and then we went to a 1-2-2 prevent trap and slowed them down a lot," Bud Michels said. "So they were already gassed and then we took some of the other guys and put them in instead of scoring we just wanted to keep the puck in their zone. That's all we cared about. And when they put their first shift back out there that's when we put our guys back out there who were already rested and we really just crashed the net."
Huntingtown gave up a disheartening 5-on-3 power play goal midway through the second period. The Hurricanes committed six penalties in the game, compared to three by Atholton.
"That hurt, and before the game we just said that if we can just stay out of the penalty box we can play with anybody," said Huntingtown coach Chip Vernon, who pointed out that the two-man disadvantage became a three-man disadvantage. "You get a five-on-three and then one of your penalty killers loses his stick, so it was a 5-on-2. That was a turning point for us."
But the Hurricanes were still in striking distance until 33 seconds after the resurfacing break, when Jake Mills' strafing wrist shot put Atholton ahead by three goals.