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Let’s Take this Outside

By Scott Harrington, 02/21/23, 2:30PM EST


Mid-week games will decide which teams go to FirstEnergy Stadium

This year, the semifinals and finals of both the Brooklyn and Kent Regions will be contested at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland – home of the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League.

The six games over two weekends will be part of a three-week series of outdoor games that will also put college (NCAA & ACHA), pro (AHL) and junior (USHL) competition on display.

While the six high school games will certainly be can’t-miss events for high school hockey fans in Northeast Ohio, the competition to get there will be held at the traditional regional playoff sites this week and might be just as intense. None of the teams that have made it this far are going to want to miss out on the opportunity to play on the big stage downtown.

As we have covered extensively at Ohio Hockey Digest over the years, with only one division of competition for hockey, there are a handful of Ohio High School Athletic Association programs that can pretty much expect to be in that group of eight teams that get the chance to play at FirstEnergy Stadium. For our purposes here, let’s just say that there will be some very disappointed players and coaches (and parents) if Saint Ignatius, St. Edward, University School and Gilmour Academy are not at least playing in the semifinals of those two brackets.

But what about the other four spots? For a handful of teams in the next tier of high school hockey in Greater Cleveland, the regional quarterfinal game will not just be an opportunity for teams to take another step towards the state tournament in Columbus, but a once in a lifetime opportunity to play outside at the home of the Cleveland Browns.

Saint Ignatius, ranked #1 in the state, as well as #4 University School, #5 St. Edward and #6 Gilmour Academy are all pretty safe assumptions to get that far. The coaches of those programs will tell you they will not take anything for granted so I will for them – at least for the sake of this discussion. That leaves two spots on either side of the bracket.

In Brooklyn, the winner of Tuesday’s Benedictine-Amherst Steele matchup (a re-match of the Baron Cup championship game won by the Bengals) will head to FirstEnergy Stadium where they will presumably face Saint Ignatius in one of the semifinals. Circle your calendars for that game, a do-over of sorts for the Comets.

Amherst head coach Steve Morris does not want his team thinking past Tuesday’s re-match with the Bengals.

“I’m not a big fan of looking ahead,” Morris said. “But it’s hard not to, knowing that if we move on, the opportunity to play at the Stadium would be an unbelievable experience for the players and something they will remember forever.”

Padua and Rocky River, meanwhile, meet up Wednesday at Brooklyn Rec Center with a trip to FirstEnergy Stadium on the line. The winner could go up against presumptive semifinalist St. Edward, under the lights.

At Kent State University Ice Arena, old east side rivals Shaker Heights and Mentor are on one side of the bracket (with University School) while Walsh Jesuit and Hudson are on the other (with Gilmour Academy).

The Red Raiders and Cardinals have already met three times this season. Two of the games ended in a tie (the most recent on January 29) while Mentor won the other, 5-3, just after Christmas.

The Cardinals were the #1 seed for the Baron Cup and earned a bye into the semifinals but were knocked out by Amherst.

Paul McKito, Mentor’s head coach, says that loss to Amherst has given his team more drive and motivation to elevate their performance in the big matchup against Shaker.

“We haven’t looked ahead at the opportunity the next two games could bring for the players on a grander stage, playing at First Energy,” said McKito. “We have stressed the importance of preparing for Shaker and this matchup since the regular season and Baron Cup ended.”

Still, has to be hard for the players not to think about what is on the table.

“Our group knows what a great once in a lifetime opportunity it will be to get to that point, and I’m certain that is going to be in the back of their minds,” McKito conceded. “But our mindset now is to continue to win each and every shift and win hockey games and move on to the next opponent in the district tournament.”

While the Raiders and Cardinals are quite familiar with each other, Walsh and Hudson have not met on the ice this season.

Walsh won the Kent Region for the first time in 2021, and comes into the game ranked #13 in the state. Hudson checks in at #23.

Warriors head coach Pete Calleri was not interested in any discussion of playing at the stadium prior to Wednesday's playoff with the Explorers.

"I haven't even thought about it yet," he said. "We have to win tonight and it's always a battle."


--- Scott Harrington for Ohio Hockey Digest