During the 17 days between defeating Glenelg for the Howard Cup, and playing Wootton in the Maryland Student Hockey League state semifinals, the Atholton ice hockey team tried its best to stay sharp with intense intrasquad practices.
"I think we prepared well. A lot of practices, a lot of work on different systems," Raiders coach Bud Michels said. "That kept us sharp. We run a really up-tempo practice. We ran things at practices to make us break down and they were able to recover."
But when the puck dropped against Wootton Monday at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel, little could have prepared the Raiders for the genuine article.
Wootton peppered Atholton with 34 shots on goal, finding the net five times in a 5-1 victory.
"They have a very strong team. They run a very consistent (offense), they have a lot of talent on their team," said Michels, whose team had 13 shots on goal. "I just think they had a little bit more tempo than we did. I don't think our guys fell down at all, but they had the momentum the whole game."
Luke Klecker scored the first of his two goals less than five minutes into the game, and the Patriots (15-1) were never seriously threatened.
"We played a solid possession game, moved the puck around," said Wootton coach Dave Evans, who praised the defensive effort of seniors Austin Schoenfeld and Jordy Bretner. "We really ran three-plus lines. Depth is a huge thing. We noticed they were bunching a little bit onto the strong side, so we were really preaching to the kids to spread out and move the puck laterally across ice."
By the midway point of the second period, Wootton's Adam Kaplan and Nathan Tadesse had also scored, and Atholton (12-1) didn't get on the board until Matt Haney (assisted by Tré White) scored off of a turnover with four minutes left until the start of the third period.
"They kept the puck in our zone. They got a pretty good workout on the goalie," Michels said. "They really came out strong and I was really impressed by their play ... If we were able to play a few games up until the time, it may have made a difference, but Wootton was just on."
Although the Raiders were still in the game early in the third period, any suspense was gone after Schoenfeld and Klecker knocked in a pair of goals in a less-than two minute stretch starting with 10:20 left on the clock.
"They have a lot of depth and a lot of good players, and they wanted it," said Atholton senior defenseman Kyle Jacobs, who hopes to play for Shippensburg University next year. "We wanted it, but in the end they finished their chances, got more shots on goal."
The two teams uncharacteristically combined for 45 penalty minutes, after Atholton had the fewest penalty minutes of any team in the MSHL this season.
"The only thing that was disturbing at all was the penalties, both teams had unnecessary penalties," Michels said. "For our team that doesn't have penalties all year, it was 'What's a penalty kill?' cause we don't really do it."
Evans, the Patriots coach, was impressed by Atholton junior goalie Kyle Brinker, who racked up 29 saves.
"The kid is good. He really played well," said Evans, whose team advanced with a 4-2 victory over defending champion Winston Churchill one week ago. "If (he) wasn't as strong, we might have jumped on them a little bit more a little earlier."
The Raiders, who won their first MSHL state championship two years ago and have won three consecutive Howard Cups, return 15 players next year.
"Looking back, this program has really grown since my sophomore year when I started playing," said Jacobs, who finished the season with nine goals and eight assists. "I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing these guys come back and compete every year, because they have the talent and depth to do it."
Atholton played eight freshmen this season.
"In the end we have six graduating seniors and we're a fairly young team. Half of my team is freshmen, so I think if anything this will be a team building experience for next year," Michels said.
Wootton advances to play top-seeded Leonardtown, a 5-2 semifinal winner over Easton, for the championship Feb. 28 at 7:15 p.m. The Patriots only loss was to Landon, 8-2, three games into the season.
"Their kids never gave up. I know it's tough when they didn't lose all season, but they seem like a really class team, classy coaches," Evans said. "You always want to advance against a team that you can really respect."