For the third year in a row, the KLAA hockey championship has come down to Brighton and Hartland.
“A league championship is great for both programs,” Hartland coach Rick Gadwa said. “It’s good for the experience and it’s good to get into a playoff-type atmosphere before the playoffs start.”
The teams will meet at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Kensington Valley Ice House. The game will be broadcast live on livingstondaily.com.
“They’re a tough opponent,” Brighton coach Paul Moggach said. “I respect how they’ve come along. They have good coaching, good, hard-working kids. They have everything they need. It’s going to be a tough game.”
It will be the first game for both teams since they played Saturday in the MIHL Showcase in Trenton. Hartland won both games that weekend, while Brighton lost a pair of close contests.
To Gadwa, however, the term “lost” isn’t quite accurate.
“They lost the first game in the final seconds, and they lost the second in a shootout, which we don’t have anywhere else,” he said. “They’re playing their best hock of the year right now. We know what we’re getting into — a tough game against one of the premier programs in the state. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
Coming as the game does, near the end of the season, it livens up what otherwise could be a lull before the tournament begins a week from Monday.
“Everyone knows Brighton is one of our biggest rivals,” Hartland co-captain John Nagel said. “Anytime you’re in a championship game, everyone gets excited for it. There’s been a lot of energy and practice has been good. Everyone’s working on something, trying to get ready for Saturday.”
Brighton’s Zach Vitkuske, who committed to playing baseball at Muskegon Community College on Wednesday, said the Bulldogs have been hard at work, too.
“Everything we’ve been messing up in games we’ve been working on in practice,” he said. “I think we’ll be ready when it comes time.”
As for strategy, as the old saying goes, the hay’s in the barn.
“You have to go with what brought you,” Moggach said. “They’re a good team and we’ve improved. We’re in a good spot. The boys are working hard, having fun and they’re healthy.”
“The key for us is going to be playing our Hartland style,” Gadwa said. “If we get away from that and go to individual play, we’ll be in trouble. No individual will carry this team. It will take every guy buying in and staying the course.”
Both teams have upgraded their schedules, but Brighton went a little further this season.
The Bulldogs paid for it early, when injuries to their top forwards helped contribute to an 0-5 start, but a 12-game unbeaten string from just before Christmas until just before Valentine’s Day put the slow start in the distance.
“That’s the idea, to help prepare us for big games,” Moggach said of his team’s schedule. “It should help, but it comes to the moment, and what we did in November or December and the competition level doesn’t have an effect (on Saturday).”
Or, as it turns out, on Wednesday, when the teams play a regularly scheduled game at Hartland.
“We have two games left,” Moggach said of the home-and-home with Hartland, “and then we start with Howell (in the first round of regionals). It’s a nice thing, playing locally, playing teams we have rivalries with and respect for. It’s a nice situation to be in.”
Nagel has been on the Eagles team the past two years, and would like nothing more than to finish his high school career with a win.
“Obviously, we’d like to beat them both times,” he said, chuckling. “But if we win one and lose one, obviously, we’d like to win Saturday.”
“We’ve played the best of the best,” Vitkuske said. “We’ve played some teams that aren’t as good. We’ve been up and down. We know where we stand. I think we’ll be fine when it comes down to game time.”
Contact lead sports reporter Tim Robinson at (517) 552-2863 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.