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Centaurs fall in OT in Division II state championship game

It takes so much dedication and effort to reach the pinnacle for a high school athletic team.

That’s probably why it is so difficult to come home with the runner-up plaque.

The Woodstock Academy boys hockey team now joins the many who have experienced a second-place finish as the second-seeded Centaurs lost 2-1 in overtime to top seed North Haven in the CIAC Division II state championship game Tuesday at the M&T Bank Arena at Quinnipiac University in Hamden.

The loss meant Woodstock Academy finished with a 23-2 record.

“We’re all proud of what we did. We had a great season,” said senior captain Jacob Jurnovoy. “We put on a show for everyone and exceeded our expectations.”

Both losses having come at the hands of the Nighthawks who know how the Centaurs felt, North Haven lost in the state title game a year ago.

“We were the No. 11 seed last year, lost our top three defensemen and some key forwards. We had to work hard from Day 1 even in workouts in the spring and fall, most of the guys showed up. Even kids who didn’t make the team wanted to show up and were working out. I saw a lot of growth and development both on and off the ice for several of our guys. It wasn’t always easy. I’m proud of every single one of these kids. I wanted them to play their hearts out, to do the best they could and they did that. We just came up short,” Woodstock Academy coach Mark Smolak said.

It will be the one thing that escaped the head coach’s grasp in his first year at the helm.

The Centaurs had just one regular season loss, won the Nutmeg Conference regular season and tournament titles and advanced to the final two.

He was also recently named the Division II hockey Coach of the Year by Connecticut Hockey writers.

Smolak knew the contest with the Nighthawks would not be easy.

North Haven had handed Woodstock Academy a 5-1 regular season loss.

But there was reason for optimism going in.

“We were healthy. (Junior forward) Noah (Sampson) was at full strength. We had (sophomore goalie) Dante (Sousa) locked and dialed in. He came into the tournament wanting some recognition and to show who he was and I think he did that. I think that all my guys did. It’s tough because we’re on the other side of the state and no one sees us often. It was good to see us put our name on the map and show that we’re here and here to stay,” Smolak said.

Sousa was especially important early.

The Nighthawks had the better of the play early in the game and outshot the Centaurs, 10-4.

But Sousa was up to the task.

“Without him, in that first period,( the game) is not close. Without him, late in the third period, it’s not close. Having him here, as a sophomore goalie, knowing he’s only going to go up from here, builds a lot of confidence for our team,” Smolak said.

Sousa finished with 30 saves but was one of the last to leave the ice, finding it difficult to accept the loss.

“Dante is Dante. If you tell him the stakes are high and he needs to win a game, be a miracle maker, he does every time. It’s unfortunate how it ended for him,” Smolak said.

It took awhile but the Centaurs were the first to get on the large scoreboard, hovering over center ice.

A scramble in front of the net, involving the entire Centaur blue line, resulted in junior Donnie Sousa’s 29th goal of the season off assists from linemates Sampson and Maxx Corradi.

“It’s the playoffs. It’s not always going to be pretty, sometimes, you have to battle in difficult areas of the ice. That line did that there, got the puck, and we had the lead for a while,” Smolak said.

Donnie Sousa scored with 3 minutes, 31 seconds left in the second period.

The Centaurs were able to hold on to that lead until just 5 ½ remained in regulation.

“I think when we got that goal, we settled down and started to play our game. That was our difficulty. We had a tough time getting started and playing our style of hockey. Once we got that goal, it woke us up, we realized it was just a game and we were focused and in the zone,” Smolak said.

But, the wear-and-tear of the game eventually got to the Centaurs a bit.

“I believe there was a little fatigue at the end,” Jurnovoy said. “We came out hard in the second period and fought through the end of the third, but I think we were a little tired at the end.”

Unfortunately, the momentum swung when senior Thomas Guidone, off assists from William Sullivan and Alex Petersen sent the game into overtime with the equalizer.

“We weren’t expecting that. They got the goal and it got them going,” Jurnovoy said.

It was the first overtime game since Fairfield Warde/Ludlowe defeated North Branford, 4-3, in the Division II championship game in 2016.

Just a little over 5 ½ minutes into the extra frame, Petersen scored for North Haven to give the Nighthawks the sudden death victory.

“To lose the way we lost was tough but it is what it is,” Smolak said.

The Centaurs were clearly upset as they came off the ice.

Any team would be.

But, with time, it will likely turn to fonder memories.

“It was an awesome experience, an awesome feeling. Getting sent home last year really put it into perspective for us that we made it to the state championship game. A lot of boys wanted it from the beginning of the season and we got there. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it happen, but it was a good run,” Jurnovoy said.

Their spirits were also lifted a bit on the way home.

Their coach bus was greeted at the Bungay Fire Department by a host of fire trucks from all of the Woodstock area fire departments and the Centaurs were treated to an escorted ride back to the North campus of the Academy.

“A lot of the boys liked it. They were excited to know that people were there and there for us, showing support for us. It was a good feeling,” Jurnovoy said.

There is no question, the team would love to have the same thing happen next season.

They would just rather be bringing home the state championship trophy instead of the runner-up plaque.