Disciplined Tigers respond to Smith
BRECKENRIDGE – The story about how an ugly hockey team, both on and off the ice, took a turn toward fairy tale begins last summer.Summit High School athletic director Gretchen Nies had just announced that 29-year-old Bryan Smith would be the Tigers’ new head coach. In a story for this newspaper a few days later, Smith said his goal for the following winter involved a number, but not a victory total. He said his plan – a ridiculous, laughable one at the time – was to take the Tigers to the Frozen Four of the state tournament.This was a team three months removed from a 6-12-1 season (the six wins tied for the most in the program’s five-year history); a team whose coach that winter had been suspended three times (still not as many as his players); a team with about as much direction as a mole in the Pacific.Smith didn’t flinch. “It might be far-fetched,” he said then of his Frozen Four optimism, “but if I set a goal like that, the kids could respond to it.”As he tells it now, Smith woke up the next morning, read his words in the paper and realized right away he’d gone too far.It turns out, however, he was wrong – about going too far. The other part – about making the Frozen Four – was correct.
Summit, seeded 13th, stormed through its first-round and quarterfinal games last weekend, beating defending state champion and No. 4 seed Air Academy, 4-1, then topping No. 5 Bishop Machebeuf 6-4.After the second win, as the players and coaches mobbed each other in celebration, the event’s magnitude hit them.”I think everyone knew we could do it, but when it happened it was just crazy,” senior forward Chase Underbrink said. “Everyone was in awe.”The focus shiftsWednesday afternoon, four days since the weekend upsets, the team practiced for the penultimate time at the Stephen C. West Ice Arena. By then the awe had given way to momentum, evidenced by the “SHS Frozen Four” signs painted in the rear window of nearly every car in the parking lot.Despite the postseason results thus far, the Tigers are still a monumental underdog going into the semifinal round Friday night. To wit: Even if Summit were to shock the world some more and win the state championship, it would still finish the season below .500, at 11-12.
In contrast, the Tigers’ semifinal opponent at the World Arena in Colorado Springs will be Cheyenne Mountain. The Indians are 22-0-1 this season and are ranked No. 1 in the state. The other two Frozen Four qualifiers, No. 3 Battle Mountain and No. 7 Peak to Peak, are 14-6-1 and 15-6, respectively.Again, Smith doesn’t flinch. He staunchly maintains his team belongs.”I feel these kids have earned it,” he said. “The regular season, you get a chance to work and prepare for the postseason. And that’s what we’ve done all season.”Something else they’ve done all season: behaved. Last year was a disaster in that regard. If Summit wasn’t committing so many penalties that its coach had to sit out the next game by rule, the Tigers were goofing off on their personal time and giving the program a bad name in other ways.Teammates began feuding with one another. The game stopped being fun for pretty much everyone.”Just the same crap,” was how SHS captain Billy Barto described it.Then Smith took over, and everything changed. Discipline became a requirement instead of a choice. From the freshmen to the seniors, Summit’s players took their potential seriously.
At the first practice of the season, 34 of the 35 kids trying out for the team showed up not just on time, but 10 minutes early.”Last year if they showed up late they’d get away with it, and this year if they showed up late they’d run the stands, with full gear – literally,” said SHS assistant Bobby Doré, who has teamed with fellow assistant Chris Ruhly to give Smith a staff he calls “a team within the team.””They’ve made us more disciplined than any team I’ve played for,” freshman forward Alex Gutierrez said of the coaches.The Tigers enter Friday’s game having won six of their last eight games, a streak due in large part to Smith’s decision to cut the number of players who dress for each game from 20 to 14.Summit has already overachieved plenty. Yet the “miracle on ice,” as the athletic director Nies calls it, would be nothing compared to that which it would be if the Tigers won two more games.Smith’s outlook? “If they want it, they’ll win it.”Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13630, or at email@example.com.
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