Written by Louis Cornett '22 and Jackson Cooper '23, Core Staff of Prep News
“Great day to be a Jr. Bill,” read the Snapchat story of senior Sean Wiegers last Friday night, and, by that point in the night, few could have made the case otherwise. After all, St. Louis U. High’s varsity hockey team had just defeated their archrival, the De Smet Spartans, in a nail-biting Challenge Cup Final to claim their fourth state title, and first since 2019.
As charter members of the Mid States Club Hockey Association nearly 50 years ago, SLUH and De Smet are no strangers to each other on the ice. Historically, De Smet has been the powerhouse of the two programs, winning 14 Challenge Cup titles over the course of their history. In recent years, however, that trend has begun to reverse. Going into Friday’s night’s game, SLUH had won three Cups since the Spartans last won it in 2010, and had won every Jesuit Cup since the 2013 season.
With De Smet hungry to end their 12-year drought, and the Jr. Bills eager to claim their third title in five years, the Final was sure to be a hard-fought and physically demanding matchup.
In the lead up to the game, which was played at Centene Community Ice Center at 8:30 Friday night, both SLUH and De Smet were given ticket allotments of 1000 each, and by midweek, both schools had run out. Thus, many students were forced to purchase from the pool of 1000 general admission tickets sold by Mid States, which culminated in the event selling out over two hours before puck drop. Unlike in previous years, where the Final had been held at the 18,000-seat Enterprise Center and rarely sold even half of the tickets in the lower bowl alone, this matchup was sure to be backed by a rowdy, standing-room only crowd.
“Going into the game, I tried to think of it as just another game,” said junior defenseman Luke Gund. “As we walked out of the tunnel, though, it felt like we were playing a pro game, with that many people there. That sudden rush of feelings kind of got to us, but as soon as the puck dropped, we just settled in and played our game.”
After back-and-forth taunting between student sections and a lengthy player introduction segment, the puck was dropped and play began. Almost immediately, it became evident that the Spartans intended to come out fast, and several quality efforts early on tested junior goaltender Max Bely.
“Whenever we play De Smet, we know they are going to come out of the gate playing two lines,” said head coach Steve Walters. “They are going to play their top 6 forwards and their top 4 “D” and they are just going to drive it down your throat. We, however, play four lines, making it very difficult to get through us defensively.”
In fact, Bely faced and dealt with the game’s first nine shots, with SLUH unable to register a shot on net until nearly eight and a half minutes into the period. When senior forward Nick Lyons finally put that shot on goal he very nearly scored, as his shot beat De Smet’s goalie and caromed off the post.
The Jr. Bills did not need to wait too long to get on the board, though, as a failed attempt by a Spartan defenseman to clear the puck from his defensive zone was blocked, and found the stick of senior forward and co-captain Max Sextro. Sextro then laid the puck off to sophomore forward Daniel Sendobry, who carried the puck across the ice to the top of the right faceoff circle, where he put a wrist shot through the goalie’s legs and into the net.
The remainder of the period saw little else in the way of activity, aside from a minor penalty taken by a De Smet defenseman with 32 seconds left in the period, giving the Jr. Bills a power play which they failed to capitalize on in the remaining time.
Despite having registered just three shots to the Spartans’ 10, the Jr. Bills emerged with a narrow 1-0 lead thanks to Sendobry’s snipe and Bely’s strong presence in net.
The game resumed with SLUH still holding a minute and a half on the man advantage, in which time they failed to register a shot on net and even allowed a De Smet chance. Strong defensive play on both ends of the ice once again marked the opening half of the second, as the Jr. Bills stayed unscathed despite some dangerous efforts by the Spartans.
“We have played solid all year long in the second period,” said Walters. “All we had to do is remind them this is the long shift period, make your shift count. That’s when we started to wear out De Smet. After the goal, the momentum started to shift our way.”
One of SLUH’s best opportunities of the period occurred just after the halfway point, when Sendobry received the puck with no defenders in his field of view. While seemingly readying for a shot, Sendobry was bulldozed through the back by a De Smet forward and into another De Smet player, who sat on Sendobry’s stick and prevented him from joining the SLUH defense on the backcheck. Despite two clear penalties (the hit from behind and the holding of the stick), nothing was called on the ice, and play continued with neither side able to conjure another goal.
The two best chances of the period, however, came from the Spartans. A shot taken by a De Smet forward with just under five minutes to go leaked past Bely, who miraculously flipped over to stamp his glove over the loose puck before a Spartan could tap it in.
Less than two minutes later, a pass from behind SLUH’s net just missed a wide-open De Smet player in the slot, who mistimed his one-time shot attempt.
Despite both sides registering equally dangerous chances, the period emerged scoreless, and the Jr. Bills and Spartans returned to the locker room for intermission with the score still 1-0. The shot total in the second was significantly more even than in the first, with SLUH registering seven shots to six from De Smet.
With a contentious third period left to be played, De Smet wasted no time in putting their foot on the gas, which showed just 41 seconds in, when defenseman Billy Wagner was forced to take a tripping penalty in order to prevent a De Smet shot on goal. Just 27 seconds later, De Smet tied up the game courtesy of a monster slapshot from the point taken by their captain, defenseman Vito Biondo.
Not at all disheartened by the Spartan goal, however, SLUH emerged determined to rebound with a strike of their own, which they achieved just 46 seconds later. After winning a faceoff in their defensive zone, the Jr. Bills embarked upon a three-on-two rush into the De Smet zone, where Sextro found himself open in the slot. Sextro then beat the Spartan goalie with a wrist shot to his upper glove-side corner, sending both the SLUH student section and the players on the ice into an absolute frenzy.
“The guys on the ice executed a perfect zone entry,” said Walters. “Max just hung out high on the weak side, got a pass, and just put it on net right away while the goalie was still moving and that is why it found the net. This was the beginning of the end for De Smet that game.”
Upon resuming their one-goal lead, the Jr. Bills and Spartans began another stretch of play marked by physical, defensive play. Both SLUH and De Smet challenged each other’s goaltender, but neither could put a shot in throughout the tough slog that made up the middle ten minutes of the third. Borderline penalties were committed by both teams, but nothing was called and the score remained 2-1.
Badly in need of a goal to force a chance at sudden-death overtime, the Spartans called a timeout with 2:25 left in the game, and pulled their goalie in exchange for an extra attacker. After putting some quality efforts on goal that Bely easily handled, the Jr. Bills nearly put the game away with an empty net opportunity just 70 seconds before time was set to expire. However, due to some confusion as to whether icing had been called, a Spartan defenseman was able to dispossess the SLUH player in the crease, preventing a goal in the nick of time.
With one minute left to play, De Smet experienced its best chance at tying up the game, when a well-placed shot from a Spartan forward just slipped out of Bely’s grasp. As Bely dove to cover the puck whilst De Smet players poked away to try to force it in, both factions in the crowd waited with nervous anticipation for the referees to signal goal or no goal. When the puck slid out of the crease and the referees signaled no goal on the play, the SLUH contingent erupted in cheers, secure in the knowledge that they had just avoided a potential disaster.
“There were lots of players in front of me, so I couldn’t really see the puck very well,” said Bely. “Somebody took a shot, and it hit my glove, or maybe even someone in front, and the puck ended up off to my left. There was a De Smet player maybe three feet away about to hit it in, and then my defenseman Luke Gund fell on top of it. I was able to squeeze my glove over it and told the ref that I had it covered the whole time, but obviously Luke came in clutch there.”
After a clearance of the puck on the ensuing faceoff, two Jr. Bill forwards—Sextro and senior Ben Winkelmann—raced out of the zone, knowing that they were one steal of the puck away from securing a state championship. Sextro reached the Spartan defenseman first, whom he promptly dispossessed. Sextro then unselfishly passed the puck off to a sprinting Winkelmann, who fired the puck into the empty net from the left faceoff circle to make the score an insurmountable 3-1 with just 38.3 seconds to go.
Little else transpired in the final 30 seconds, and, with a final clearance down the ice with just five seconds remaining, the SLUH bench emptied and the student section erupted once more, as the school’s fourth State tritle was won.
Though SLUH emerged with 17 shots overall compared to 22 from De Smet, they were able to come away with a victory over their most bitter rivals thanks to their ability to capitalize on offensive opportunities. Bely in particular had a spectacular night in net, saving 21 of 22 shots faced to record an ungodly save percentage of .955.
In the formalities after the game, Sextro was awarded with the Player of the Game award in recognition of his contributions to all three SLUH goals—one goal and two assists.
After the trophy and winner’s plaque were collected, the team locked arms and joined in a rousing rendition of “O When the Bills Go Marching In,” capping off a memorable night filled with school spirit and excellent, evenly-played hockey.
“After celebrating with Bely, we did the traditional “O When the Bills” chant and that was probably the single greatest moment of my life,” said Wiegers. “It was so indescribable. I grew up watching SLUH hockey and to be put into the group of state champions is really special to me.”
“It's the best ending of any season, right?” said Walters. “Winning the last game. I'm really proud of them and the boys have played this way all year long. At the end of the day, we won the state championship with a group of guys who played as a team. We were in it together.”