Braves end season at state tourney
Members of the Bottineau-Rugby Braves boarded the team bus Feb. 23 bound for state with hopes high and an enormous challenge before them.
The Grand Forks Central Knights waited for them at Purpur Arena for the first round of the tournament.
Braves Coach Jesse Nostdahl said, “Grand Forks Central is one of the best high school hockey programs in the country.”
Some Central players such as senior forward Braden Panzer practically have hockey in their DNA. Panzer’s dad, Jeff, was a star player at UND and USHL Player of the Year for 1995-96. Jeff Panzer was a Hobie Baker Award finalist twice and an NCAA First Team All-American member twice. He played professional hockey for nine years.
Panzer and the Knights went into the first round of state as the east region’s number one seed. The Braves went in as number four for the west region.
The Braves prepared for a David-and-Goliath battle.
“We want to go in there and get one of the biggest upsets in North Dakota high school hockey history,” Nostdahl said as Rugby players boarded the bus and police and fire vehicles lined up to escort them out of town.
“That’s the game plan,” Nostdahl said. “The guys had some good practices and they’re about as excited and loose as they can get. We’re just going in there with house money and hoping to pull off a victory.”
The Braves skated onto the ice at Purpur Arena loose and focused for the game’s beginning.
It seemed the Knights had met their match in the first five minutes of the game. Both teams spent equal amounts of time in each other’s defensive zone. At 5:31, the first goal came – from the Braves.
Dalton Vietz-Reile, a Rugby High junior and forward for the Braves, shot one past Central’s goalie Jack Jahnke unassisted.
Fans for the underdog team went wild.
Vietz-Reile said of the goal, “(Forward Jacob) Shriver hit it off the boards and (Central’s) defensemen got the puck and it was bobbling. I got it away from them. Off to the races I went and shot it to the low blocker side and into the net it went.”
“It was great,” he added. “It was a dream come true. I was very shocked. My teammates were pumped. They were so happy. It was a great feeling to have them all high-fives and hugs and everything.”
About four minutes later, the Knights showed why they have their reputation in high school hockey.
Assisted by Panzer and senior forward Joseph Kennelly, Chase Spicer shot a goal past Bottineau-Rugby’s Tyler Olson. The Braves stepped up their defenses, but the Knights swarmed Bottineau-Rugby’s D-zone. About six minutes later, Spicer, Kennelly and Panzer struck again, with Spicer getting the go-ahead goal. After the goal, the Knights came right back from center ice, this time with a goal from Central’s forward Dominic Gerszewski, assisted by forward Brendan White and forward Connor Litzinger.
Spicer and Panzer struck again in the opening seconds of the second period, assisted by defender Joseph Riskey. After Spicer’s hat trick, Kennelly assisted with a goal by sophomore forward Bryce Philpot. Gerszewski also assisted.
Olson and the Braves defenders could do little more than limit the damage by the Knights, but their hard work showed, with Olson logging 43 saves for the game. The Braves stayed out of the penalty box and a power-play opportunity from a Knights penalty gave Bottineau-Rugby forward Ian Amsbaugh some time in the D-zone. Amsbaugh has consistently placed in the top five among hockey scorers in North Dakota for the past two years.
Unfortunately, Knights defenders still kept him away from all but a few attempts at the net. Shots went astray.
After the Knights returned to full strength, Spicer, Philpot and defender Dillon Kuntz added to the Knights’ score with three goals in the third period. Panzer, Kennelly and forward Rylan Hoffman assisted.
The Knights would total 51 shots on goal for the game. The Braves had a total of nine.
The game ended with an 8-1 win for the Knights and memories of a state appearance for the Braves, who hadn’t advanced that far in the post-season for nine years.
The Knights would face Fargo South in the semifinal round at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“We knew we would have to play a different game to have a chance versus Central,” Nostdahl said of the Braves’ strong first period. “We watched some game video and used some different concepts. I think it bought us some time.”
“That first 7 minutes the boys executed it and paid off,” Nostdahl added. “However…when you’re playing a team with that much skill, years of high competition hockey, and good coaching…it’s just going to correct itself. That’s a heck of a hockey team over there.”
“Hats off to them,” Nostdahl added.
Of the Bottineau-Rugby player chemistry, Nostdahl noted, “Culture is a pillar on our team. Hockey players are hockey players. Whether you’re from Rugby, Bottineau, or wherever.”
“We just want to give them an environment where they can compete, learn the game, and enjoy themselves during the process,” Nostdahl added. “In the end, the credit goes to our leaders for being an inclusive and positive group of young men. They embraced everyone regardless of age or school of attendance.”
Nostdahl said he was glad to see Vietz- Reile’s first-period goal. Vietz-Reile and his twin brother, Cole have played for the Braves since their sophomore year. Nostdahl referred to the brothers and sophomore forward Shriver as “that green line … or triplets.”
Nostdahl said the trio “are just three guys that buy into a vision and go to work their hardest to execute it. They basically were together all year and got better every day. They don’t necessarily produce on the scoresheet but they do a heck of a job limiting opponents. We were so happy to see Dalton net the first goal of the game. He totally deserved it.”
“The young guys got such valuable experience and leadership from our seniors,” Nostdahl added. “There’s a lot of talent returning (next year) and a bunch of guys that are ready to take that next step. We’re super excited for next year and can’t wait to reset, regroup, and gear up for another year of hockey for the BRHS boys.”
“We also want to thank the Bottineau and Rugby communities for the outpouring of support in the final few weeks,” Nostdahl said. “Sitting in that locker room, on the bus with them, and seeing the smiles on their faces…you’ll never know how much it meant to them and how much they appreciated it. Thank you!” Nostdahl added.
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