The Jr. Ducks’ 12U AAA team was fortunate. Its wake-up call came early in the season.
As painful as the 9-0 loss to the rival Los Angeles Jr. Kings was on Oct. 6, the 12U’s and their coaching staff realized changes needed to take place. And take place they did.
As a result, the 2007 birth year team lifted a CAHA Tier I championship banner on March 1 at Riverside, defeating the same Jr. Kings. It is the Jr. Ducks’ first 12U Tier I championship.
“Our big goal was the state championship,” head coach Dean Caban said. “We’re a team that plays defense very well.
“We’re not a team that relies on one or two players for offense, we have to score by committee.”
That approach was reflected in the CAHA run, which included a 6-2 win over the San Jose Jr. Sharks, a 3-1 loss to the Jr. Kings and a 9-1 victory over the Jr. Sharks that set the stage for the final against a Southern California rival.
Maintaining an emphasis on defense paid off for the Jr. Ducks. On their first goal, Cole Bieksa and Max Silver forced a turnover and then found Carson Woolcott behind the Jr. Kings’ D. Woolcott deked the goalie and shot the puck five-hole for a 1-0 lead.
After the Jr. Kings tied it on a power-play goal, Garrett Russell and Rui Han worked a 2-on-1 that ended with a backdoor tap-in for Han.
The Jr. Ducks’ eventual winning goal came off a face-off play in which Hayden Russell faked winning the puck back to a defenseman, tapped it forward and recovered it. He then found Han, who had charged to the net, on the backdoor for his second goal of the game.
The Jr. Kings again quickly drew to one goal after a scramble in front of Ryan Denes’ net.
Holding a 3-2 lead, the Jr. Ducks locked down on defense during the final 10 minutes. When the Jr. Kings generated scoring chances, Denes made clutch saves. None were bigger than during the final sequence, when the Jr. Ducks had to kill off a 6-on-3 penalty to end the game.
“We’re not a one-dimensional team,” Caban said. “Any line can score and any D can score. We can come back, and we take a lot of pride in not allowing goals.”
The CAHA title, coupled with a strong showing in the weeks leading up to the Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament, capped an incredible month for the 12U’s.
En route to Quebec, the team played top teams in Indiana, Chicago and Wisconsin and won seven of eight games in the process. They posted several more impressive wins in exhibitions in Quebec, including a 4-1 win against Detroit Honeybaked.
“By far our most complete game of the year,” Caban said. “The team really matured.”
And to think a potentially crushing loss started it all.
“It was super humbling. The kids were upset,” Caban said. “We had to evaluate who we were and what we wanted to do. That was the turning point for us.
“We changed the way we practiced, the way we did dryland and the way we trained. It wasn’t an overnight change. But we didn’t forget that game. Guys remembered that all year.
“We used that as fuel and motivation.”
The results – a CAHA title and a strong showing at the most competitive Pee Wee tournament on the planet – attest to that.
The other 12U team members included: Caden Campion, Trace Frieden, Timothy Greenleaf, Alejandro Hassan, Ilya Kabanets, Clarke Nehmens, Kenjia Ni, Alofa Tunoa Ta’amu, William Urtel and goaltender Aaron Sachs. Caban was assisted by coaches Mike Banwell and Kevin Bieksa and team manager Amy Nehmens.
The 12U’s CAHA championship was the second Tier I title for the club this year, following the 15U AAA team’s triumph in early February. The Lady Ducks also won CAHA Tier I titles at the 14U and 16U levels.
The Jr. Ducks have won 11 AAA CAHA titles since 2015.
Also in CAHA State games at Riverside, the 2008s reached the championship game before falling to the Jr. Kings, 4-3 in overtime. The 11U’s went 2-1 in round-robin play to set up a rematch in the final.
The 2006s rallied from a first-round defeat to win two knockout games before falling to the Jr. Kings in the 13U championship game, 5-3.