Atholton ice hockey coaches Bud Michels and Chuck Shaw made their team a promise three years ago.
"Three years ago when I took over as head coach, midway through the season we were undefeated and I said, 'If we make it to the Howard Cup, we'll wear a tux until we lose. We made it to the semifinals and lost to Marriotts Ridge, and then last year we got eliminated in the quarterfinals by Marriotts Ridge, so we didn't have to wear a tux," said Michels, whose team finally broke through to the championship game this year by edging River Hill, 4-3, in the semifinals on Thursday. "We held our promise and they held theirs ... I'm so glad I didn't wear it in vain."
As it turned out, Michels and Shaw were dressed for the occasion by the end of the evening (or early Saturday morning as it turned out), as Atholton won its first County Cup, defeating Marriotts Ridge, 5-2, at the Columbia Ice Rink.
It was the third meeting between the two teams this season. On Jan. 6, the defending champion Mustangs won, 3-1. One month later, on Feb. 3, Atholton reversed its fortunes, winning 3-1 and giving the two teams matching 9-1 records at the end of the regular season.
In Friday night's county championship game, which started at 10:30 p.m. and ended well after midnight, Atholton got on the board first when Jake Mills took a pass from Zach Michels midway through the first period and backhanded it into the net.
But Marriotts Ridge, which won its first County Cup last season by defeating defending state champion Glenelg, wasn't going to go down without a fight. Less than two minutes after Atholton's goal, Kyle Davis intercepted a Raiders pass and scored. Three minutes after that, Matt McNutt found himself in a one-on-one and wristed a shot past Atholton goalie Taylor Abell's right shoulder to give his team a 2-1 lead.
Atholton clanged two pipe shots in the last two minutes of the first period, and outshot Marriotts Ridge 11-4 in the first 15 minutes, but trailed 2-1 nonetheless.
Then, just over a minute into the second period, the Mustangs seemed poised to extend their lead when Atholton committed a pair of penalties in a span of 30 seconds, giving Marriotts Ridge a 5-on-3 advantage for 90 seconds.
Atholton hunkered down to kill the power play though, and it turned out to be a turning point in the game.
At the 2:11 mark, Zach Michels collected a sharp pass from Mills and sent it home to tie the game at 2-2. Before Marriotts Ridge had a chance to gather itself, the Raiders scored twice more on a pair of unassisted goals by Mills and Brandon Potter to take a 4-2 lead.
"That was a surprise. They're a great team, they've got a great goalie (sophomore Dylan Schoen), even with all of those shots I didn't think we'd get that many goals, sometimes the puck just bounces your way," said Mills, who finished with two goals and two assists. "I thought it was going to be close, I thought it was going to be a 1-0 game, maybe something that went into overtime."
The flurry of three goals in less than 90 seconds to close out the second period left the defending champions reeling.
"I was hoping to get to the second period intermission there with a tied game," said Mustangs coach Chip Sheehan, who coaches several Atholton players on a U-18 travel team. "They had a deeper bench than we did ... they just put as many shots on net (as they could) and then went for the rebounds."
After the Zamboni break, the difference in the game was still only two goals, but when Atholton's Avery Shepherd scored a short-handed goal midway through the third period, assisted by Mills, the game was all but over. Atholton finished with 21 shots to Marriotts Ridge's 13.
"It's not over yet. This was just a stepping stone. It was a big step but we're still working," Mills said.
The Raiders will now advance to the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League state semifinals for the first time in school history, playing the winner of Walkersville and Walt Whitman at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel next Thursday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m.
"We'll make a few minor adjustments on things that we saw tonight, but all in all I think we're going to be very aggressive," said Bud Michels, who will be dressed to the nines for the occasion. "I'm going to wear (the tux) until we lose. If we win (the state title), then I'll be wearing it next year until we lose."
A: Jake Mills, assisted by Zach Michels, 8:32.
MR: Kyle Davis, unassisted, 6:55.
MR: Matt McNutt (short handed), assisted by Jason Winik, 3:32.
A: Zach Michels, assisted by Jake Mills and Avery Shepherd, 2:11.
A: Jake Mills, unassisted, 1:11.
A: Brandon Potter, unassisted, :43.
A: Avery Shepherd (short handed), assisted by Jake Mills, 6:23.
Atholton junior defense
Two goals, two assists