Special to The Lake Report
With most of their goals for the season already achieved, the undefeated U22 Niagara Thunderhawks focused last week on the final mission of their outstanding season: winning the 2022 Ontario “A” provincial championships in Whitby.
Game 1 matched the Thunderhawks with a new rival, the Gloucester Griffins. The Thunderhawks were taken aback by a fast, strong and aggressive team and ended the first period scoreless.
Although they were able to beat Gloucester’s goalie, they hit five posts during the second period and were down 2-1 going into the third.
Gloucester went up 3-1 in the third and for the first time in the season the Thunderhawks were in unfamiliar territory, needing to come from behind. They rallied to tie the game at 4-4 with two minutes left.
That tie would be the closest Niagara would come to tasting defeat all season.
In Game 2, the Thunderhawks faced a weaker Kawartha Lakes team, scoring in the first 30 seconds and romping to an 11-3 win.
The final round-robin game was against another unfamiliar team, the Newmarket Redbirds.
The Thunderhawks came out somewhat unfocused and ill-prepared for the level of effort needed to win and were down 2-0 after the first period.
That lack of focus sent a number of the Thunderhawks into the sin bin racking up penalties for half the second period, however they were able to tie the game at 2-2 heading into the third.
Luckily, Newmarket followed suit by earning over half of the third period as penalty minutes. With fewer opponents on the floor, the Thunderhawks were able to pull out a 4-3 win.
That left the Thunderhawks tied for first Gloucester in Pool A. Under the tourney’s tiebreaker formula Niagara had a 0.58 average score, bettering Gloucester by just 0.02.
That meant the Thunderhawks played Guelph Regals, second in Pool B, in the semifinal last Thursday morning.
Considered one of the toughest teams the Thunderhawks have met this season, Guelph did not disappoint, opening the scoring 30 seconds into the match.
But NOTL answered and Guelph added another 30 seconds after, making it 2-1 at the end of the first.
The Regals came out with a fury during the second, scoring three goals and putting the Thunderhawks into a very deep hole, forcing the coaching staff to try to change things up by replacing goalies.
The change helped settle the team, but the Thunderhawks remained behind 5-2 starting the third period.
Unlike a Hollywood movie, there was no inspiring speech, anecdote or story between periods to inspire the team.
Rather there was a mostly quiet plea from the captains of the Thunderhawks to their peers to not let this be the end to their stellar season.
The team responded, scoring just minutes into the third to make it 5-3. Niagara added a fourth goal a few minutes later, but they were still behind.
Then, with the Thunderhawks down to the last 30-second possession of the game, and their goalie pulled, Niagara went up six players to five on the floor.
After hitting a couple of posts, with just 11 seconds left in regulation, the Thunderhawks buried the tying goal to force a sudden victory 10-minute fourth period.
Possession, possession, possession was all that mattered during the fourth and the Thunderhawks were up to the task.
The Regals were limited to just one scoring attempt, a shot that squeezed through the arm of Thunderhawks goalie Jack Muraca, bounced toward the goal, but was swatted away by Muraca before it could end the Thunderhawks season.
The Thunderhawks dominated the rest of the overtime period, getting numerous scoring opportunities.
With 2:30 left in the fourth, Jack Parker’s shot through a crowd blistered the backstop for an enthusiastic sigh of relief and catapulted the Thunderhawks into the finals.
Gloucester was again Niagara’s opponent, having ousted the Milton Mavericks in the other semifinal.
This time, just like a Hollywood movie, it was the struggles to get to the finals that provided the Thunderhawks all the incentive they needed to play their best.
The all-important possession started with Keaton Boldt winning all but one face-off throughout the game to teammates Hunter Ostromecki, Jordan Wiens, Liam Dietsch and Christian Blaylock.
Gaining possession continued thanks to the defensive core of Trent Hunter, Aaron Wilson, Brett Wilson, Nathan Wilson, Jack Marotta, Noah Ostromecki, Matt VandeLaar, Colby Ostromecki, Liam Gatt and Sam VanderZalm.
They exerted their will over the Gloucester team, forcing poor shots, bad passes and double-digit turnovers.
Turnovers allowed the offensive team to wear down the outstanding goalie from Gloucester. Boldt fired a missile to the top corner of the goal early in the first period to start the Thunderhawks off on the right foot, before Hunter Ostromecki followed suit by picking the bottom corner to put them up 2-1 at the end of the first.
Dietsch, an elite defensive player, was able to strip the ball, collect it and outrun a Gloucester opponent for a break away, picking the opposite bottom corner for a 3-1 lead.
Ostromecki capped off the scoring with 30 seconds left in the second period. Although Wiens, Parker, Kris Wilson, Nolan Price, Aedan O’Gorman, Joe Fragnito and Ethan Williams were kept off the scoresheet, they all contributed.
Without their efforts, Niagara’s four goals wouldn’t have been possible as their continuous offensive pressure wore down their opponents.
As the final buzzer sounded and players realized they achieved their ultimate goal, they ran to their goalie, tossing helmets, sticks and gloves aloft, embracing and revelling in their achievement.
Although the games are over, the Thunderhawks created a lifetime of memories, forged a history not previously accomplished and demonstrated all the theories behind teamwork and family.
Many of the players this season started playing lacrosse in NOTL early, age four in some cases. Some played with each other for over 15 years, with moderate success and in previous years making it to the finals but just not quite able to reach the gold medal.
The 2022 U22 Thunderhawks were a special team who refused to let this happen again.
Players made the commitment to each other and the coaching staff to make the team a priority.
Most players, still have post-secondary school responsibilities, play as spares at the Jr. B level, have full- or part-time jobs. But they made the commitment to drive hours, take time off, put the U22 team first and sacrifice their all-important social time to achieve the goal of winning the provincial championship.
As a coach, this team was unique. Not for the final result, which was an incredible success, but the desire and willingness to be coached, follow through with their playing responsibilities and sacrificing their play time to ensure success of the whole team.
This desire to be part of history was the most special quality of these players. The NOTL minor lacrosse association was devastated by COVID-19, fielding teams in only two of seven age divisions: U9 and U22.
This means 2022 could be the last season of U22 lacrosse NOTL forever.
The goal was the championship, but the underlying, unspoken truth was we were trying to create a legacy: One that brought home a championship, gave players an unforgettable moment and provided a cornerstone of friends they will have for a lifetime.
And they made NOTL lacrosse history by going undefeated. Wow.
Thanks to the NOTL association for supporting the team throughout the season, to The Lake Report for keeping the team in the spotlight, Tim Marotta for helping with social media and things managerial, and parents for being the cheerleaders of the whole team.
A personal thanks to trainer Dan Willms and assistant coach B.J. Trush for being sounding boards, devil’s advocates and at times voice of reason.
Dan, only a few years out of completing his own Jr. B career, has given back to the U22 program for a number of years and has made himself a cornerstone member of the future of lacrosse in NOTL.
B.J. also started coaching out of Jr. B with me 13 years ago and became a key member of NOTL lacrosse coaching. He has always put “his kids” first and this year wouldn’t be an exception.
He sacrificed a day, with his wife’s support, with his newborn daughter, who arrived six days prior to the provincials to be with “his kids,” whom he has coached since they were four years old. He couldn’t miss, possibly for the last time together, the chance to win gold at the provincials.
The U22 Thunderhawks created a family in 2022. It would be great if we had more seats filled at the table in the future.
These experiences may seem small from the outside, but they changed lives for those on the inside for the better. Please join the family, my seat may be available soon.
Andy Boldt is head coach of the U22 Thunderhawks.