By SCOTT BURSEY, Staff Writer
The Lakers hockey team closed out its inaugural season with a blockbuster weekend, sweeping a home series against the Mott Community College Bears in dramatic fashion.
Despite playing competitively in recent weeks, the fledging program had not recorded that illusive first win. And it didn’t appear initially as if that feat would happen on Saturday, Feb. 25, in Gladwin. The Lakers found themselves down 5-0 at the first intermission.
But when the second period began, there was a marked swing in momentum. The Lakers skated with fierce determination. Zack Hitch led the way, breaking in cleanly on Bear goalie Garret Stanfield, who had been red hot in the first period, and beating him with a wicked backhander only 1:09 into the period. Hitch would add three more goals before he was done.
That first goal seemed to give the Lakers offense the spark it needed. The team erupted with a barrage of goals. The scoring outburst, combined with sensational Laker goaltending by Derek Fitzgerald, pulled the home team to within one goal at intermission.
At the outset of the third period, both teams traded power play opportunities. But the Lakers appeared the better prepared and conditioned squad. Jonah Ratu and Troy Benson just missed connecting on a spectacular passing play that showed the power of teamwork. Aaron Sponseller, a natural playmaker with great skating ability, came within an eyelash of tying the game — not once, but twice. The first occasion was on a forceful backhander; the second, a blistering 98 mph slapshot that ricocheted off the glass.
The Lakers were buzzing when center Tom Westman bullied his way to the net just ahead of two Mott defenders and delivered the all-important equalizer. At the 11:12 mark of the third period, the Lakers and Bears were deadlocked at 8-8 and the tension in the air was mounting.
Mott added the go-ahead goal just a couple minutes later, despite Fitzgerald coming up big on numerous Bears’ scoring chances.
MMCC was not going to be denied. After a rocket slapshot from Lakers defenseman Chase Marchand, the Bears goalie was able to get a right pad on the puck at the very last moment, leaving a long rebound for hustling center Jonah Ratu. Ratu calmly pulled the trigger and blasted a wrist shot past the right shoulder of Stanfield to once again pull the Lakers even.
But what happened next left the partisan crowd reeling. Logan Johnson made a perfect feed to Hitch, who split the defense and skated powerfully to the left circle, stickhandling around a diving Bear. He faked a backhander and blew a hard wrist shot past Stanfield for what would prove to be the game winner. Hitch pumped his fist in celebration and was mobbed by his teammates.
Solid team-oriented defense provided the icing on the cake for the remaining three minutes of play.
Sunday’s game in Mt. Pleasant was every bit as spirited.
It was a tight-checking battle from the beginning, with both teams having good scoring opportunities. But great defense and timely goaltending were the story.
The two teams were tied at 4-4 with 9:30 remaining in regulation when the Lakers Aaron Sponseller delivered the colossal game-winning goal with a high backhander. The Lakers added an insurance goal with a few minutes remaining to capture their second season win by a 6-4 margin.
At the conclusion of the game, emotions were high. Several Mott players initiated what proved to be a dramatic bench-clearing brawl, the result of two days of intense hard-fought hockey by both squads.
But it remained a memorable weekend for Lakers hockey and its faithful, including Head Coach Barney Ledford.
“I’m so proud of our team,” Ledford said, summing up the weekend’s action. “All the coaches who volunteered and did a miraculous job …. the players who all made sacrifices in the name of belonging to a team with unlimited character. But, the real winner here is our school and community.”
Coming soon: The Laker Current takes an inside look at the many challenges of starting a competitive sanctioned college hockey program with no funding.