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But once again, it wasn’t an easy task for the defending state champions as East threw everything it had at them.
“That’s how it goes,” said Rustin head coach Nick Russo. “The cream’s at the top and that’s what is going to happen on any given night. One of the big guns are going to win.”
The Cougars came out flying, out-shooting Rustin 7-1 at one point in the first period.
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“That first period was a monster,” said Downingtown East head coach Dave Hendricks. “We took a couple steps back in the second, but they regained the pressure in the third. To have a team like Rustin on their heels for a lot of the game and to have them actually afraid of you is a great thing. We just came up a little bit short today.”
Rustin was able to withstand the onslaught, despite missing three of its players.
“We had a little change-up in the lineups,” Russo said. “It wasn’t so much on the defense part, but when you take a second-line forward and put him on the first line and take a third-line forward and put him on the second line, it changes things. It took them a while to get going. It wasn’t a lack of effort.”
It’s not the first time Rustin has found themselves facing more pressure than it’s given.
“We’ve dealt with this before, so it’s just a matter of getting it done,” said Rustin forward Joel Sheriko.
Though it may not be new, it’s some Russo would like to not happen, especially after being out-shot 36-17 in the game.
“I don’t know too many teams who have out-shot us this year,” he said. “(Downingtown East) worked really hard. I don’t like it at all and it better not happen again. We might be skating in practice next time.”
But luckily for Rustin, they have a sniper in junior Brett Christie, who notched two goals in the game, including a short-handed one late in the second to regain a lead.
“We were able to take advantage — Christie’s an equalizer and with both Grandes,” Russo said.
Sophomore goaltender Jason Grande was also key, stopping 34 shots on the night.
“He really kept his composure,” Russo said. “He’s only a sophomore — people don’t think of him as only a sophomore and that’s why he leads the league in statistics.”
Though East came up just shy in the game, Hendricks knows his team still has a chance for states.
“It’s the best game we’ve played all year long,” he said. “I told the guys we had a couple little mistakes, but I can’t be angry. If they play that hard in the Flyers Cup, I don’t care what seed we are, we’re a dominant team. There’s no team that will be able to keep up with that in any division.”
For the Golden Knights, their Ches-Mont season will continue Thursday against West Chester Henderson.
“We know the journey is not over,” Sheriko said. “There’s still more to come.”
West Chester Henderson 2, West Chester East 1
One thing is clear: This isn’t the same West Chester Henderson team which started the season.
“We’re a different team now,” said Henderson head coach Scott DiRico. “We changed guys around and play a different style. It took a while, but guys finally bought into what we were trying to teach and it has been several years now we’ve been trying to do it.
“We have the group of guys who have finally put it together.”
Though second-seeded West Chester East had No. 3 Henderson’s number during the regular season, beating them 5-3 and 4-2, the playoffs are a whole different beast and Henderson proved it.
“We controlled the physical play early and that was the biggest thing,” DiRico said. “That set the tone for us and beating them at their own game, essentially.”
But none of it could be done without the goaltending tandem of seniors Connor Carroll and Tyler Bonjo, who have shared the net throughout the year.
“I feel like it has made our friendship really good,” Bonjo said. “We always make each other better.”
The Ches-Mont Championship is nothing new to Henderson, who is returning for its fourth consecutive year.
“To defend our title is hard — every game is hard,” DiRico said. “You’re playing the defending state champs. It’s to win our league, but they’re defending state champs for a reason. It’s a battle and one we want to prove that we’re just as good.”
It made be a tough task, but the players are up for the challenge in less than 24 hours.
“We’re so pumped,” Carroll said. “So pumped.”