Portage County Gazette 20th Anniversary: SPASH hockey wins first State Title
This story is a reprint from the March 8, 2002, edition of The Portage County Gazette.
Portage County Gazette
By Mike Kemmeter
Special to The Gazette
MADISON – There was a very different feeling on the ride home from the WIAA State Hockey Tournament this year.
After a handful of heartbreaking overtime losses and second-place finishes over the years, the Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH) hockey team left the Dane County Coliseum Saturday, March 2, with smiles on their faces, gold medals around their necks and the program’s first State Championship Trophy.
But before many players shed tears, this time tears of joy, the Panthers pulled out a nail-biting 2-0 win over Superior, thanks in large part to senior goalie Shaun Kruzitski, who shut out the Spartans and made several big saves to keep SPASH (23-2-1) in the lead.
“Hopes are hopes and dreams are dreams, but we are the only team in the state that actually gets to say our dreams are reality,” said Kruzitski, who finished with 30 saves. “It answered my dreams in every which way. We just worked really hard on getting the shutout.”
Kruzitski was on the top of his game from the start, and he had to be, as Superior (20-4-1) peppered him with shots in the first period. The senior made 16 saves in the first 15 minutes, including three big stops in a row while the Spartans were on the power play.
While Kruzitski kept Superior at bay, the Panthers got on the scoreboard in the final minute of the opening period. After a Superior turnover, junior Joe Pavelski took a cross-ice pass from senior Ben Roth and beat Spartans goalie Keith Johnson with 44 seconds left.
“It was bouncing and I stopped it. I took a look and the whole upper right corner (of the goal) was open,” Pavelski said.
That’s exactly where Pavelski put it, for his 43rd goal of the season.
SPASH carried the momentum from the late score into the second period and turned the tables on Superior, putting heavy pressure on Johnson.
“We didn’t do anything,” SPASH coach Jack Stoskopf said, when asked if the Panthers made any adjustments between periods. “We progressively played better as the game went on.”
In an intense third period, Superior had one last chance to tie the game in the final minute, pulling Johnson after a timeout. Kruzitski made another big save though, and SPASH’s Ben Roth scored an empty-net goal with 23 seconds to go, sealing the win.
“We couldn’t afford to have a bad shift. I don’t think we did,” Stoskopf said. “We did not hold on, we kept playing.”
The Panthers were not considered one of the favorites at the start of the tournament, which was to SPASH’s advantage, Stoskopf said.
“Everybody talked about Hudson and Superior (in the quarterfinal) being the championship game,” he said. “Not having the pressure on us helped us win.
“I don’t think there was ever a question in their mind. The pressure was off and the confidence was there.”
The loss gave Superior its fourth defeat of the season, and first to a team in the state. The Spartans play many of Minnesota’s top teams during the regular season.
“They play a tough schedule. I’m proud of the fact we’re the only Wisconsin team to beat them,” Stoskopf said.
Stoskopf was also thrilled for the fans, supporters and former players who were involved in the team’s 13 other State-Tournament trips, including four times where the team came home as the state runner-up.
“Our community has awaited a State Championship and has deserved one,” Stoskopf said, who returned to coach the team this season after one year away from the bench, to spend time with his family. “I think they’re thrilled,” he said of the former players. “This win is for all of the kids who have played for Point in this tournament.”
* * *SPASH advanced to the title game with a 4-2 win over Milwaukee University School in the semifinal round Friday. Nate Alm scored twice, Jimmy Haluska had a goal and an assist, while Brian Soik lit the lamp once for the Panthers. Kruzitski made 12 saves for SPASH. In the quarterfinal round Thursday, the Panthers scored three unanswered goals to open the game, and ran away with a 5-1 victory over Valley Conference rival Wausau West. Mark Lutz had two goals and two assists, with both assists coming on Pavelski goals. Pavelski assisted on one of Lutz’s scores. Haluska had an empty-net goal and an assist, while Tanner Gruber picked up a pair of assists. Kruzitski made 28 saves in the win.