Boys aim to make noiseIt’s been called by many as one of the finest venues in all of North America to play a hockey game, and the Jamestown Blue Jay boys are heading back for the second time in three years.
By: By Michael Savaloja, The Jamestown Sun, The Jamestown Sun
It’s been called by many as one of the finest venues in all of North America to play a hockey game, and the Jamestown Blue Jay boys are heading back for the second time in three years.
Home to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, Ralph Engelstad Arena — North Dakota’s Palace on the Prairie, if you will — is a destination that every young area hockey player dreams of one day playing.
The current athletes on the Blue Jays’ roster are no different. They’ll be facing Grand Forks Red River at noon tomorrow in the opening round of the state boys hockey tournament at The Ralph.
“It’s kind of breathtaking that first time,” said All-WDA forward Jake Stilwell, one of three senior Blue Jay captains. “The first thing you do when you get in there is you look up and realize how big it is.
“But you have to forget that and act like you’re playing at Wilson Arena on a Tuesday night type of deal.”
If Jamestown is able to do what Stilwell said, nobody should be looking past the No. 4 seed out of the West Region. The Blue Jays are currently as hot as they come, winning five of their past six games, and they’ve proven that they can go toe-to-toe with the best after taking Bismarck Century — the West’s No. 1 team this week at state — to double overtime before falling 4-3 in last weekend’s semifinals of the West Region tournament in Minot.
The Jays enter state with a record of 13-11.
“We’ve had our ups and downs during the season, but here at the end of the season we’ve been playing our best hockey, and after last weekend we’re really believing we can beat those teams seeded higher than us,” senior captain and All-WDA defenseman Dakotah Spitzer said. “Obviously we made it there, but we gotta go up there and make a name for ourselves, make a name for the west (region).
“A lot of East teams are able to move on and stuff, but this year I feel like maybe we can go up there and do something about it and move on.”
The Jays made the state tournament for the first time in 12 years two years ago in 2011, which was the last time the Blue Jays met up with Grand Forks Red River. The Roughriders upended the Jays 7-1 in the opening round, and the Jays’ state tournament ended the next day with a 1-0 loss to Minot.
Current senior forward and captain Alex Williams also played on the state tournament team from two years back. Williams and Stilwell are both coming off an excellent West Region tournament offensively.
Williams tied a tournament-game record with 5 goals during Jamestown’s 9-7 opening-round win over Bottineau/Rugby. He finished the tournament with 6 goals and 3 assists, while Stilwell tallied 5 goals and 6 assists for 11 total tournament points.
The duo is 1-2 on Jamestown’s roster in scoring, with Stilwell (58 points) sitting with 32 goals and 26 assists, and Williams (35 points) currently holding 19 goals and 16 assists.
“Obviously there are going to be some nerves, but we’re going to have to go and give 150 percent,” Williams said. “Hopefully everyone on the team plays 51 minutes and it turns out good. We have to play with a lot of poise, make smart decisions and capitalize when they give you the chance.”
Stilwell, Spitzer and Williams are three of seven seniors on the team, which includes goalies Tygh Yatskis and Ben Walz, defenseman Matt Grounds and forward Anthony Cook.
“The seniors this year are going to have a little bit more of a feel (for the state tournament),” Stilwell said. “It was 12 years the last time Jamestown made it to state (in 2011), and nobody really knew what to expect. I think the seniors are going to know what to expect now, and we’ll just know how to play in that atmosphere.”
“It’s a great feeling,” Williams added. “Senior year, going out by going to state, to end your career like that is a good feeling, and I think we’ve got a pretty good chance with the group of guys we’ve got.”
The roles have certainly changed for this year’s group of seniors. They’ve had to mature into leaders, but they’ve taken that responsibility head-on and it’s proven to be successful.
“It’s different when you’re one of the oldest guys on the team. Everyone kind of looks up to us seniors,” Stilwell said. “If we need someone to pick us up it has to be one of us, and you never really get to experience that until you’re a senior.”
That maturity level and renewed sense of pride in Blue Jay hockey is something head coach Matt Stockert said he hopes his younger players are paying attention to.
“I don’t want to say people were down and out on the program, but it’s really nice to see the last two out of three years we can put some kids in different roles and ask them to go out and do their jobs and they go out and do it,” Stockert said. “I think it’s a true testament to this group of seniors that they can say they’ve made it to state two out of the last three years. Hopefully the junior and sophomore classes are learning from that, learning how to be leaders on and off the ice.”
There’s nothing quite like a trip to state — a trip to Ralph Engelstad Arena — to motivate and inspire.
“We’ve got a good bunch of guys now that are going to have the feeling of going to state,” Williams said. “I think they’ll play that much better to get back to state again.”
But first thing’s first. Winning a hockey game or two and sending this year’s seniors out on a high note is priority No. 1 this week.
“You grow up watching the high school team, and you’ve wanted to be on the team so bad. You finally get that opportunity and you want to make the most of it,” Stilwell said. “Nobody is expecting us to win, so why not go and prove people wrong?
“To be the first team in quite a while to win a hockey game up there, that would be real special for us.”
Sun sports writer Michael Savaloja can be reached at (701) 952-8461 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org