ASHBURN, Va. – Ralph Sowter started his plan for youth hockey in the Tampa area by converting the roller hockey rink he owned to ice about a decade ago. He’s led Tampa Scorpions teams to USA Hockey national titles in the Under-14 and Under-16 age groups.
So it was perhaps fitting Monday that Sowter was behind the bench when a Florida team won the USA Hockey High School National Championships for the first time.
Sowter led JW Mitchell (New Port Richey) to the Combined Division title with an 8-7 overtime victory against Boulder (Colo.) Monarch. Teams in the Combined Division includes players from multiple schools. Mitchell’s team has one player from Land O’Lakes and two from Sun Lake.
St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) was the only other Florida team to make a final, in the tournament’s inaugural year in 2010 when there was only one division.
When initially approached by a reporter, Sowter said he was too emotional to speak. He later spoke but only to deflect credit to everyone else.
“All I can say is the boys worked hard preparing,” he said. “The hours they put in, it paid off. The support from the area, the support from the Tampa Bay Lightning. We had other folks involved besides the three coaches; we had trainers involved and all the volunteers.”
The significance of a Florida team winning was not lost on those around him, though. Manatee (Fla.) reached the semifinals before being eliminated Sunday.
Both teams are part of the Lightning High School Hockey League (LHSHL), an 18-team organization that is wholly owned and operated by the NHL team for the first time. It previously existed as the Lighting Conference. The Florida High School Athletic Association does not sponsor hockey.
Mitchell won the inaugural Lightning High School Hockey League Lightning cup by beating Manatee.
A key component of the Lightning’s involvement is coaching from former players. Vinny Prospal has coached with the Scorpions for a number of years; Jassen Cullimore and Filip Kuba also have been heavily involved.
“When you see a team like Mitchell or Manatee do well on a national level, it speaks volumes to the kids and to the talent we have in Florida,” said Tom Garavaglia, the Lightning’s community hockey manager and vice president of the LHSHL. “We’ll come to a tournament like this and people don’t expect much. Team from Florida can’t be that good. Well, we are that good. We have two of the top four teams in the nation, which is pretty incredible.”
On the ice, the final was a back-and-forth affair. Mitchell trailed 3-0 after the first period before scoring seven times in the second period.
“We knew we couldn’t give up and had to keep coming at them,” said Mitchell’s Zachary Harrison. “We knew we had to get shots. That’s what we did and that’s how we came back and got seven goals.”
It was a 7-4 game after two periods, but Monarch made it a one-goal game when Brendan Van Haute scored twice within seconds at 11:28 and 11:13 of the third.
Blake Bride then forced the OT with an unassisted goal with 1:50 remaining.
On the game-winner, Harrison was camped out front trying to block the goalie’s vision with Mitchell on the power play. Tim Lynch passed the puck to Nathan Smith, who got it to Harrison. His deflection over the goalie glove at 2:40 into the OT went in and the celebration began.
“It was a really a perfect play and just the best feeling in the world,” Harrison said.
Harrison had two goals and Lucas Sowder had a hat trick for Mitchell. Van Haute, Adam Tybor and Bride each tallied twice for Monarch.
“This is a huge accomplishment,” Harrison said. “Most people thought that kids from Florida couldn’t even come to nationals and we shouldn’t even be here. We proved them wrong and look where we are now.”