Mission’s run to USA Hockey national championship game fueled by team chemistry
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the remarkable season just completed by the Mission AZ 18U AA team was that some of the players’ favorite memories were of the nightly team gatherings during their trip to the USA Hockey National Championships.
Because their hotel in San Jose, Calif., had limited space for large group get-togethers, the squad gathered each evening on the roof of a parking garage alongside the hotel to debrief after the day, recharge for the next day and de-stress from the high-stakes tournament. After each win, the coaching staff would add something to the mix, and by the end of their stay, they had purchased a barbeque and a kiddie pool – creating their own personal oasis on top of that concrete structure.
The memories will last a lifetime, and it’s clear that the close bonds developed amongst the squad had a lot to do with its success. Mission advanced to the national championship game before falling 6-3 to the three-time defending champion Maine Moose on April 8.
It was without a doubt one of the most successful seasons in the program’s history.
“This group just fit – it was a magical group,” said Jeremy Goltz, the team’s head coach and Mission’s hockey director. “Everyone had a role, and they knew it. They loved each other and played for each other. You don’t always get to see that with 17- and 18-year-old kids. They were proud to be on this journey together, and they should be.”
The team’s roster includes forwards Dean Angelo Jr., Johnny Baird, Nicolas Coppola, Jake Fain, Christopher Fritz, Matt Gary, David Jaichner, Benson Middendorf and John Salyer III; defensemen Brian Baier, Scotty Bird, Jordan Gaeta, Luc Spinasanta and Joel Tessmer; and goalies Matthew Diamond, Chase Golden and Taz Joplin. Goltz is assisted by Terry Tessmer and Chris Carouchi.
“It’s huge what we accomplished this season,” said Golden, who has one more season to play with Mission and aims to get back to the national championship game with different results. “We beat the No. 5 team in the country, plus the No. 7 and No. 15 teams. Playing in the CSDHL and the NAPHL showcases, it was a great year for us. Coming in second stings a little bit, but it’s still a big accomplishment.”
Mission won the Arizona Amateur Hockey Association state tournament back in March, then set its sights on winning a national championship. In the national tournament, they secured a 2-1 win over Ashburn Xtreme, fell to the Affton Americans 5-2, then rattled off wins of 3-2 over the Maine Moose and 8-1 over the SnoKing Jr. Thunderbirds to reach the title game.
While the team came up one victory short, its players can look back on the season and realize they accomplished more than anyone thought they would.
“The first couple days after the national championships, I was kind of bitter and disappointed that we didn’t come home with the gold plate, but looking back on it, with all the adversity this group faced this year, it was an absolute honor and pleasure to be on the ice with those guys in that moment and that game,” said Fritz, who finished his youth hockey career with the title game. “We’re all proud that we were able to put Arizona on the map for hockey and to bring home that second-place plate.
“I couldn’t think of a better way to end my time with Mission – to play my final game in a Mission jersey in a national championship game was pretty awesome. That has been a goal since I came to the program, but then when it became a reality, I felt there was no better way to finish up than to bring Coach Goltz a national plate and bring that back to Mission.”
“I still don’t think it has hit me,” Goltz added. “I have coached a lot of these kids for six or seven years. Getting to the national championship game was always our goal, but to actually achieve that was pretty crazy.”
Coppola agreed that it was an amazing season whose memories will stick with him forever.
“Words really can’t describe the emotions that you feel during that time and throughout the season,” he said. “Making it to the national championship game was our goal all season and getting there is a feeling that you can’t really describe. It was just amazing.
“We just had that special touch. I really do think we were a well-rounded group. We had some great goal scorers, valuable role players, tremendous defense and an amazing goalie. I think that’s what really put us over the top this season.”
Mission is the rare program where players tend to stick around year after year. It’s part of what Goltz calls “The Brotherhood,” and there’s little doubt that those bonds formed year after year play a contributing role in the program’s long-term success.
“The core group of this team has been together now for about six years – since we were all Pee Wees,” Golden explained. “We’re all close friends and know each other really well, which makes a big difference.”
Goltz said he will look back on this season as among the most memorable in his many years coaching at all levels.
“It was an incredibly special year, and obviously we’re all very proud,” Goltz said. “The whole organization and the town really rallied around us. The state of Arizona has only had two teams ever get to the national championship game, which really puts things in perspective for us. It was pretty massive – we hit hallowed ground.”
— Greg Ball
(April 26, 2019)