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By Chris Bayee, 03/21/19, 9:15AM PDT


Continuity and collaboration are two key reasons why the Anaheim Jr. Ducks’ Midget 16U and 18U AA teams are headed back to the USA Hockey Youth Nationals for the second consecutive season.

Those two will join Tier I teams at 14U, 16U and 18U, as well as Lady Ducks 14U, 16U and 19U teams and the Women’s C team, in representing the organization at Nationals on April 4-8. Factor in Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League teams JSerra, Santa Margarita and St. John Bosco qualifying and that is an incredible 12 programs under the Irvine Ice Foundation umbrella going to Nationals.

Both AA teams swept their three games at the CAHA State Tournament on March 15-17 at Escondido to reserve their spots at Nationals.

The 16Us defeated the San Diego Jr. Gulls, 6-1, and Orange County Hockey Club, 2-1, before edging OCHC again, 3-2, for the title. Their national tournament will be in Plano, Texas.

The 18Us beat the Santa Clara Blackhawks, 6-0, and Golden State Elite, 7-1, before knocking off the California Wave, 3-0, for the title. They are headed to San Jose for Nationals.

The collaboration part for the teams begins with their coaches, Jeff Noviello at 16U and Mike Perkins at 18U. Frequently, they will share ice time for practices.

“The neat thing is Jeff and I work closely together,” Perkins said. “We hold a lot of practices together. We work on the power play and the penalty kill together. We’ll split the ice so instead of having one-hour practices, the boys get two.

“We get along personally, which is a big plus. Hockey-wise, from a philosophical point, we lean in the same direction.”

The teams grew close off the ice through a bus trip to Arizona early in the season, said Noviello, who also will lead JSerra High School of the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League to Nationals on March 28-April 1.

“The camaraderie within the teams and between the teams is incredible,” he said. “The kids supporting each other at States and the showcases we played at together.

“Last fall we took both teams on a bus to Arizona for three scrimmage games vs. Arizona teams. It was just coaches and players. That was huge for team building.”

The other common thread with the teams is they’re homegrown.

A total of 14 players on the 18U team either were on Perkins’ team last season (six) or moved up from Noviello’s 16U group (eight).

“The combined practices come with the opportunity for Jeff’s players to transition right to me. They know what to be prepared for,” Perkins said. “I have to give a lot of credit to Jeff and Todd Nelson, who do a good job preparing them for the next step.”

The 16Us were entirely new, but many have worked their way up through the ranks with the Jr. Ducks, Noviello said, including a trio of first-year Midgets.

Perkins preached taking ownership to his charges, and as the season – which included a 21-0 mark in CAHA with a plus-131 goal differential – progressed players were helping with the lineup and matchups.

“I’ve been fortunate to have two years at 18AA with great kids who are good kids and very coachable,” said Perkins, who will make his fourth tip to Nationals. “Our leadership group is incredible – Zach Lane, Michael Pellegrino, Jacob Padgett, Isaac Schuster, Gavin O’Bryan and Grayson Yada.”

A particularly poignant aspect of that leadership group is two of the players overcame devastating personal losses. Lane’s father, Mitch – a longtime Jr. Ducks coach, passed just more than a year ago. Yada lost his father last fall.

“Those two young men have handled their situations with so much class,” Perkins said. “I’m honored – and humbled – to coach those two guys and proud of the men they are and they’re becoming. Zack has unbelievable work ethic, drive and determination, as does Grayson. And both are top-notch students who have priorities in education.”

The 18Us also have operated a highly successful time-share in net.

“We have two very strong goaltenders,” Perkins added. “Ethan Zorbas played for Jeff last season, and Cam Milewski played AAA hockey in Everett, Wash., last season but came back home to California this season. We rotated all year long, through playdowns and the state tournament. Everyone wanted to keep things rolling the way they have been.”

Perkins also cited his team’s resilience in the face of injuries, which at one point kept five skaters out of the line – one line and one D pair’s worth.

“Our group found ways to maneuver and jump in,” he said. “We had forwards playing D, D jumping up to play forward. We have a lot of versatility.”

Other team members include: Luke Busher, Brendan Carley, Chrisopher Emery, Joel Godown, Ethan Hirst, Lucas Kim, Cory Mater, Aidan McPhee, Harley Nyhuis, Joel Steenari, Blake Tallas and Alex Villa.

The 18Us also will bring a lot of experience – both from their Nationals experience last season and a trio of North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL) showcases to Nationals, something Perkins and assistants Doug Sheridan and John Pellegrino feel good about.

“That experience is going to be a factor for us,” Perkins said. “We’ve played enough outside of California that we know there are some really good 18AA teams out there. We took some lumps early and learned a lot about ourselves. By the time we played the third (showcase) in Detroit in January we made it to the championship game.”

The 16Us needed some ramp-up time, but they still went 17-1-3 in CAHA and had a plus-83 goal differential. Both teams played three showcases in the North American Prospects Hockey League, and that offered plenty of growth opportunities.

“It’s taken us a long time to become a team,” said Noviello, who will be making his fifth trip to Nationals between three trips with JSerra and the past two seasons with the 16Us. “But we got better and better about playing for each other. We took some lumps at the (two) showcases in Minnesota against more physical teams. But we adjusted well and kept progressing.

“The boys learned that if you want to show your teammates how much you care, block a shot, take a hit to make a pass, or back check at the end of your shift.”

16U team members include goaltenders Everett Bailey and Kyle Northrup and skaters Mark Baker II, Myles Bazoian, Cole Busher, Jake Dusterhoff, Cody Girard Jr., Jacob Hageman, Luke Hartmark, Alexander Leigh, Luke Melton, Alexander Moroz, Forrest Musselman, Elijah O’Neal, Anthony Oviedo, Benjamin Rutkai, Nicholas Smith, Matthew Soria, Nicholas Stevens and Kiril Yampolsky.

Both coaches also credited the Jr. Ducks’ support of hockey at all levels – most recently manifest in the opening of Great Park Ice in Irvine – as being crucial to their teams’ push to Nationals.

“The support of the Jr. Ducks and the new facility – you can’t ask for much more,” Perkins said. “Our teams have a neat opportunity. They can say they were State champions in the building’s first year and went to Nationals.”

Or as Noviello concluded, “When you walk in (to Great Park Ice), it is a big-time facility. And that’s a place our teams can call home. The players take a lot of pride in being part of that and want to represent the Jr. Ducks well at Nationals.”