STATE COLLEGE — There’s no denying it anymore. West Chester Rustin’s hockey team just knows when to come together and step up when it counts the most.
Over the last three years, no other high school A hockey team has been able to dethrone the Golden Knights as Rustin once again claimed the state championship in a 6-0 shutout of Franklin Regional on Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena on the campus of Penn State University.
“It never gets old,” said head coach Nick Russo. “Each (championship) is different, but boy, they are all just something special.”
Finally facing a new team in the biggest game of the season, Russo was confident the coaching staff and himself did enough research in scouting and watching film videos to be prepared for the Panthers.
As Russo said the night before, his staff has barely left his basement in March.
It all paid off, though, as the Golden Knights not only beat Franklin Regional, but goaltender Jason Grande stopped all 22 shots he faced.
“We’ve always had good goaltending at Rustin and it has been our secret,” Russo said. “If you don’t have a goalie, you can’t win. You can’t mask a goaltender. You just can’t. It’s key. It’s the most important position in the whole sport.”
Grande has been the constant in net for Rustin through all three of its championships, starting his freshman year in the 2013-14 season.
“It’s funny because everyone was saying (Franklin Regional) has a freshman and I go, ‘Well, Jason won it as a freshman, then a sophomore and now a junior,’” Russo said. “He’s so calm. If the house is on fire, I’d want Jason Grande around because he’d make sure everything stayed calm and we all got out.”
It wasn’t too clear right from the puck drop which team was going to take the game. Rustin carried in the experience, but sometimes that can also bring an overconfidence along with it.
However, once the Golden Knights’ offense got going halfway through the first period, there was no looking back for the defending champs.
“I’m sick to my stomach before every game,” Russo said. “You prepare the best you can and you come up with your game plan. At this level, it’s just whoever executes it better. (Franklin Regional) has nothing to be ashamed of. They played a great game. We just had a little bit better scoring.”
The scoring showed the range of ages on Rustin’s roster as freshman Matt Owens notched a hat trick while senior Brett Christie scored twice, along with senior Hayden Karnick’s goal.
“It’s my favorite quote — We don’t rebuild, we reload,” Russo said. “The freshmen are pretty good. I think we’re going to be okay. It’s going to hurt losing Brett, Hayden, (Eric) Flynn and those guys. And Flynn, what a game he played. He took a role where he was our leading scorer and I asked him to play center on that line with the two freshmen because I knew he was mature enough. That’s what it’s all about here at Rustin.”
Even with a roster filled to capacity with both upper- and underclassmen, Rustin was able to pull off another successful season and championship game.
“We have some ninth graders that are 13 and 14 years old and we have seniors that are 18- and 19-years old,” Russo said. “It’s not club hockey where you only have a two-year age difference. You have to deal with a lot of different issues. Some kids have curfews and some don’t, driving, shaving – it creates a lot of chaos.”
The chaos was evident for the players as well, who did the best they could game after game during the season.
“It has been crazy,” Christie said. “A lot of kids have been coming in and out of the lineup. We’ve had a bunch of line changes and people not playing every game. We didn’t really have a full roster until the playoffs came around. Luckily everyone started playing really well when the postseason hit.”
With three straight state titles, the outgoing seniors at Rustin will be leaving behind quite a legacy for the younger players to try and follow.
“It’s going to be tough for the guys coming up and tough for the freshman to carry that on next year and the next group coming up,” Christie said. “It has been great over the last three years. It was unreal my sophomore year and I just always imagined winning it my senior year just like J.R. (Barone) and Armen (Asdourian) did.”
Unlike Barone and Asdourian, though, Christie has three championships to his name.
“I’m going to brag about it to them,” Christie said with a smile. “But we all won it.”