The Pioneer boys’ hockey team skated off the ice for the final time on Saturday after a Regional loss to Trenton but the Pioneers certainly put a successful 2017-18 season into the history books.
Pioneer, facing a strong schedule including the likes of Chelsea, Saline, Skyline, Woodhaven and Dexter, finished 17-11 overall. The Pioneers finished second to Saline in the SEC Red while Chelsea won the SEC White. Pioneer also took second in the Metro Conference behind Woodhaven.
Pioneer Coach Frank Garcia said he expected a successful season but wasn’t sure his players shared his confidence at least at the start of the year.
“We lost our two leading scorers last year,” said Garcia, in his third year as coach of the Pioneers. “They were All-State players so trying to replace them was going to be tough. We also lost two goalies. But we did have quite a few guys coming back.”
Garcia knew what he didn’t have coming back, but more importantly, he knew what he had coming back.
“Our junior class is extremely talented,” he said. “I knew they would be better, stronger and faster and they were. I also knew we had great leadership on the back end with our three captains. I felt we could duplicate what we did the previous year, I didn’t know how far they could go.”
That “great leadership” included a pair of jacks: Captains Jack Reid and Jack Miling along with assistant captain Casimir Mankowski.
The key for the Pioneers was they got better. Every time they stepped on the ice they were a better hockey team than the last time they stepped on the ice.
“We improved all year,” Garcia said. “And that was really nice to see and a key to our success.”
Pioneer knocked off city-rival and talented Skyline in the first round of the playoffs then beat Huron in the second round.
“One of the highlights was beating Skyline in the opener of the playoffs,” Garcia said. “We played them the third game of the season and we didn’t really know what we had at that time. We were still figuring things out and lost in overtime. They are really good. We would watch their scores all year and no matter who they played, they were winning.”
Garcia teaches at Skyline so he was being reminded daily of how good Skyline was doing on the ice.
“I knew what to expect from them and they knew us too so it just came down to who was going to perform best on that day,” he said. “We came out on top but it was a battle.”
Pioneer’s season ended 6-0 against Trenton in a Regional game on Saturday. But don’t let the score fool you – the Pioneers played a solid game especially in the first period. But the game changed – and not for the good – in the final seconds of that first period.
“We came out strong and we were playing with them in that first period,” Garcia said. “Then with about 15 seconds left in the period we took a penalty.
“We got the faceoff and got it out of the zone. They dumped it back in. With about 7 seconds left they had a guy go to the corner and just threw it in front of the net. The puck hit our defenseman’s leg and went in the goal with 5 seconds left in the period.”
So instead of going into the locker room rolling with confidence after playing state-powerhouse Trenton to a scoreless draw in the first period, the Pioneers hung their heads and shook their heads after allowing such a fluke goal in the final seconds.
“That was a huge momentum change,” Garcia said. “I could tell walking into the locker room that they were down and in shock after that goal. Because we had just played one of the better periods we had played all year. And to play that well and still be a goal down was disappointing.”
And as often is the case, Trenton jumped on that momentum change early in the second period. In the first minute, the Trojans created a turnover and scored to make it 2-0.
“Trenton is a tremendously good hockey program and always one of the better teams in the state,” Garcia said. “They started taking it to us and we were a step behind them the rest of the night. They played three lines as did we but our second and third lines just couldn’t keep up with them. They have a lot of speed and showed why they are so good. We didn’t give up and fought hard but there is a reason they are one of the top teams in the state. They just had more team speed than we’ve ever seen.”
Garcia hopes his younger players remember Saturday night.
“It was nice for our team to see what the benchmark is,” Garcia said. “We had a good season and beat some good teams but we never played a team at that level so it’s nice that the players coming back will know what that next level looks like and strive to get there.”
Garcia has confidence his team can get to that level next year.
“We will have nine juniors back next year,” he said. “We will miss our captains who graduate this year but we should be strong again next year.”
Junior Gaiden Heatley, who led the team with 36 goals, will be back next season. Miling, a senior, was second on the team with 25 goals.