Lower Dauphin: Bears Cup champions.
That written phrase is now music to the ears of every player, coach, parent and fan of Falcons hockey, present and past. It had been 16 long years since Lower Dauphin could lay claim to it.
It was so long ago, in fact, that every Falcon on the ice in Wednesday night’s title game at Hersheypark Arena was either a baby or yet to be born last time it happened. Veteran head coach Travis Swartz, who grew up with hockey in his blood and had the Old Barn serve as a second home of sorts, was a player on LD’s last Cup winner, in 2007.
Dreams finally turned to reality when, deep into the March 1 night, the Falcons defeated the unbeaten and two-time defending CPIHL champion Central Dauphin Rams, 6-2, to bring the Bears Cup back to Hummelstown. It is the fifth title in program history.
The Rams had turned into a formidable bunch, winning the Cup in 2020 and again in 2022 after the CPIHL resumed play. CD had won all 20 games it played this season heading into the title bout.
LD swept them aside with a blazing first period, then stayed level for the remaining 32 minutes to end the drought, by far the longest of the three CPIHL Sun Country programs. Hershey’s last Bears Cup came in 2019; Palmyra earned consecutive top tier titles in 2016 and ’17.
“I mean, you love hockey, you love your school and … uh, I’m so proud of our kids,” Swartz said, as he got emotional trying to search for the right words to describe the achievement. “It’s so cool.”
LD planted its flag by doing the exact opposite of what had plagued the Falcons all season: a slow start. Not on this night, on the biggest stage.
Ethan Coots announced this game would, finally, be different by opening the scoring just 2:20 in, on a superb stick move just to the left of CD goalie Bryden Egy, to give LD the early lead.
A scant 59 seconds later, Brady Coonelly doubled the advantage when he converted Ethan Miller’s feed.
Miller cashed in on a power play with 3:40 to play in the first period to give LD a commanding 3-0 lead.
“We did some stuff the last couple days as a team, as a family and it paid off,” Swartz said, commenting on some intense video study, searching for any edge his club could gain. “It really paid off for us. There’s an advantage and a disadvantage in having to play more games than CD had to play (to get here).
“On the one hand, we have kids who are banged up and played through a lot. On the other hand, CD hadn’t played in two weeks. Two whole weeks. So, I think that played to our advantage.
“We were quick off the bat and didn’t allow as many shots in the first on Westie (LD goalie Eric West), which allowed him to be fresher later.”
LD’s lead reached 4-0 at 5:22 of the second, when Coonelly wrapped a deflected pass around the end boards that found the stick of Coots, who casually flicked it home unguarded for his second biscuit of the game.
“Going into this year, we knew this was a special group,” Coots said. “We were the only team that believed in ourselves, to be honest. I saw a poll before the season, who is going to win the Bears Cup. It was 82-18, CD over the field.
“It was the best game, easily, that we’ve ever played. I think they (CD) thought, ‘oh, we’re 20-0 and beat ‘em them twice, we’re going to walk all over them.’”
That commanding lead meant that senior all-world netminder Eric West had to be merely good, not spectacular, the rest of the way to bring it home. That didn’t impede West from making several trademark stops, as CD climbed out of the hole and gradually made its mark on the contest, as you would expect a team of its caliber to do.
“It was nice to finally have that lead,” West said, “and to know that they’ve got my back. They were moving tonight. We had our ups and downs, but the boys kept going and we won.”
West concluded his CPIHL career by never having lost three straight times to any team. Had CD prevailed Wednesday, that streak would have been snapped. It was not and now lives for eternity.
CD got on the board when Leland Kiely five-holed West on a slick move cutting across the crease, 30 seconds after Coots’ second goal, to make it 4-1. Alex Cassivi slashed CD’s deficit to 4-2 with 9:54 to play in the middle stanza, roughly halfway through to game.
It wasn’t a full ice tilt, but the Rams would not go quietly.
“You knew they were good, you knew they had a lot of offensive power,” Miller said of CD. “But once we got that first one, we started rolling and never looked back.”
A key sequence happened late in the second, when LD jammed itself up with a series of stacked penalties that gave the Rams on 5-on-3 power play, to start.
But the Falcons were able to completely kill off the extended disadvantages with a superb PK effort, then got a cherry at the other end when Matthew Foerster — who didn’t even begin seriously playing hockey until last season — tipped home Jack Cranston’s offering with 3:29 left in the period to give LD a 5-2 lead.
“I threw it out to him (Cranston), then got my stick on it as he shot and it ended up going in,” Foerster said. “CD had the momentum, but Westie kept us in it. It felt really great, because I don’t score many.”
The Falcons had survived CD’s run and even thrived by the end of it.
“The kill was huge in that on its own, it swung some momentum,” Swartz said. “Then to get one at the other tipped the momentum back to us.”
Coonelly’s second, 3:54 from time on the back end of a 2-on-1, put an emphatic finish to a most improbable display of power hockey with the chip on the line.
“Our plan was to come out hot because we haven’t been doing that, so we stacked our first line with Coots and Miller (and himself),” Coonelly said. “We got the first one and kept going.
“This is so surreal, I can’t even put it into words … yeah, we were playing a 20-0 team, but it was 0-0 going into this one.”
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