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Churchill reaches state final for first time with a 3-1 victory over Riverview Gabriel Richard in D3 semifinal

Churchill reaches state final for first time with a 3-1 victory over Riverview Gabriel Richard in D3 semifinal
BY: BEN SZILAGY Mar 9, 2:38pm

(Photo Credit: Hometown Life)

Plymouth — Livonia Churchill played a grueling schedule this season. The Chargers finished third in their own division of the Kensington Lakes Activities Association and didn’t win more than two games in a row.

But that didn’t deter the Chargers once the playoffs started. No, at all.

If anything the lessons they learned made them hungrier and wiser on the ice.

“When you consider the season schedule we’ve had, and the quality of (the) opponents we’ve played, I feel like we’ve seen every scenario,” Churchill coach Jason Reynolds said.

“This is just a testament of the perseverance of these guys have. They’ve learned from every loss we had. They’ve learned from the struggles and adversity we encountered all season. Every lesson we’ve collected along the way has allowed them to compete in games like this.”

The forgotten and, often overlooked, team in Division 3, made sure they’ll be remembered for winning five straight games in the playoffs, and making the program’s first state championship appearance with a 3-1 victory over Riverview Gabriel Richard on Friday at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth.

The Chargers will play Detroit Country Day on Saturday for the title at 2 p.m.

Churchill (16-11-3) dictated the pace of play early, but sophomore goaltender Drew Adams held his ground for Richard.

Late in the first period, though, the offense got going for Gabriel Richard (18-12).

With 4:28 left in the first period, Richard forward Chance DeSana moved the puck through the offensive zone before dropping it off to Nathan Vazquez. Vazquez crashed the net but gave up the puck to a wide open Josh Wiseman at the top of the crease who finished the play with a quick wrist shot for a 1-0 lead.

Churchill forced the play in the second with 17 shots on goal. While the play was fast and furious around the Pioneers’ net, Adams lost his stick. He played goal with a normal stick and finally got his back, but by then it was too late.

“That was a good play. We had strong shifts before the goal happened. We had the momentum and we wanted to stay in their zone,” Churchill senior Josh Friend said.

“Richard did a good job clogging up the middle of the ice. The defense was good, and we knew we needed a dirty goal.”

Senior Carter Swider held the puck to the short side of the net with no angle. He looked left and found leading goal scorer Josh Friend at the top of the hash marks waiting for a pass. When it came, Friend rifled home the goal for a 1-1 tie with 2:35 left.

“That was without question the turning point of the game,” Conor Burnette added. “All of our guys were working their tails off. And we can’t thank (Friend) enough for what he’s done for this team. He’s stepped up in every single game.”

Burnette’s coach agreed.

“You could see that goal deflated (Richard) a bit,” Reynolds added. “In their regional final against Woodhaven they skated to a 1-0 win. I believe that once they got that early goal, I think they were hoping they could hold us off.”

Friend wore a hard hat during the post-game news conference. The hat is covered in signatures of past valuable players, and Friend has been more valuable as the team’s leading scorer this season, and he used the third period to put a stamp on the game.

2:09 into the final period, Friend poked the puck away from a Richard breakout in the Pioneers’ end. He then moved quickly into the slot and fired a 2-1 goal to the stick side for his second of the game.

“I wouldn’t have been here without my team, we all wear hard hats. We all work. It was just a bad turnover, and I was able to capitalize on it,” Friend said.

Churchill was pressed late by two bad penalties midway through the third period. Even down a man, the hard work never stopped as Zack Vendittelli forced a turnover and netted a short-handed goal for a 3-1 lead with 4:09 to play in the game.

How many students and teachers that were in attendance to support the early game surprised the players. But they were thankful for their support.

“It means so much to the school, not just for us. We want this so bad. We’ve studied film since the late (in the) season loss in the city championship against Stevenson, and we wanted to be positive,” Burnette said.

“We’ve worked hard to flip the culture around here. We want to just be positive (with our) energy, and show that hard work can lead to something. This is the first time we’ve been able to play at USA Hockey. We want to finish this season the right way”