When Santa Margarita Catholic High School’s ice hockey team won the USA Hockey High School Division 1 National Championship last month, they did so in dramatic fashion.
Trailing Regis Jesuit High School of Colorado 2-1 with 10 seconds remaining in the third period of the championship game and having pulled their goaltender for the extra attacker, Eagles junior Jerrett Overland made a pass out of their zone that took a bit of a lucky bounce past a Regis defenseman to freshman forward Brendan Williams. Williams and junior Joey Felicicchia sprinted down the ice for a final offensive push.
“I was thinking I had to make something happen,” said Williams. “Our season can’t end here.”
Williams then connected with Felicicchia on a pass, and the forward sent a one-timer into the back of the net, tying the game at 2-2 with two seconds on the clock.
“I had been told my whole life that the middle guy crashes the net,” said Felicicchia. “The next thing I knew, I was under a pile of guys. It was unbelievable to tie the game.”
Having sent the game into overtime, the Eagles had all of the momentum.
“The feeling on the bench was we had just tied the game with two seconds left, we need to win this,” said Williams.
Two minutes into overtime and on the power play, sophomore Ryan Johnson and Williams assisted on the game-winning goal by senior Leevi Selanne, son of Anaheim Ducks legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne.
“I didn’t know whether to celebrate, scream or cry,” said Selanne. “It was an awesome moment for sure. I felt like it was my time. I owed the team and had to step up. This was our chance to win a national championship, and I was going to get that puck in the net…Father (Mark Cruz) told us to play with your heart, and that’s what we did.”
The national championship capped off an undefeated season for Santa Margarita as the Eagles went a perfect 30-0, including 6-0 in the USA Hockey tournament. This is Santa Margarita’s second national title, having won the gold medal in 2013 over Regis Jesuit, and having also earned bronze in 2011 and silver in 2015 and 2017. Their 4-3 lost last year in the championship game to Bayard Rustin High School from West Chester, Pennsylvania, created motivation for this year’s squad, especially the seniors, to go out on top.
“We kept that feeling, put it inside of us and passed it down to the younger guys,” said Felicicchia. “We came out for the championship and didn’t want that feeling again.”
In their ninth season as part of the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, and the only California high school to win a USA Hockey national varsity championship, the Eagles hockey program is led by NHL veteran and former U.S. Olympian Craig Johnson, who spent part of his playing career in Southern California as a member of the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. When asked how the players stayed motivated to achieve an undefeated season, both Williams and Felicicchia credited Johnson and the coaching staff.
“They had us focus on the details and kept us humble,” said Williams, who had assisted on each of the three Eagles’ goals. “They kept encouraging us to try harder.”
“We wouldn’t have gotten there without the coaching staff,” said Felicicchia. “We were a brotherhood, and to be able to win for them and the [seniors] as well and send them off like that, was a great experience.”
While in Plymouth, Minnesota, for the national tournament, Santa Margarita had the opportunity to present a special jersey to the players from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s hockey team. The two schools share the eagle as their mascot, and the jersey included both of their eagle logos, the words “Eagle Strong” and the number 17 in honor of the 17 people who lost their lives on February 14 at the Parkland, Florida campus.
Having moved to Orange County with his family two years ago from the suburbs of Chicago, Felicicchia has been impressed with the level of hockey being played in SoCal and feels that Santa Margarita’s national championships help to further the growth of the sport locally.
“I think this definitely solidifies hockey here,” said Felicicchia. “Teams from California should not be overlooked.”
With the goal of establishing a winning culture as well as developing players’ skills and confidence, Coach Johnson recognized the exceptional level of commitment from the team both on and off the ice.
“I am so proud of our entire team and what they accomplished this season,” said Johnson. “They fought hard to the very last second. All of them will forever remember this incredible win and the great lesson to never give up, no matter what the circumstance.”