The Christian Brothers College High School hockey team had only seven seniors this season — compared to 14 last season — but the seven provided key leadership and scoring.
The Cadets saved the best for last this year, mowing down quality opponents in the Mid-States Club Hockey Association playoffs and winning the championship for the fourth consecutive year.
In the title game at Scottrade Center, CBC defeated rival St. Louis University High School 4-1, taking a 1-0 lead in the first period despite being outshot 11-4. Clayton Dawe started the scoring after a pass from fellow senior Will Baginski. Senior Noah Roofe then added a goal on a breakaway and another senior, Bud Winter, had the other two goals for CBC.
"The seniors this year made up the lion's share of the scoring," coach John Jost said. "Some of these younger guys are good players, but they have to pick up the slack next year."
The seniors "did a heck of a job," he said. "We're definitely going to miss them."
The Cadets lost four league games this season — "bumps in the road," Jost said — but "those bumps ended up being what made us the strongest in the long run," Dawe said.
"There were times we didn't know how far we were going to go," Jost said. "It comes down to leadership — guys who've been there before learning from other seniors and leaders who'd been there years before them."
The championship is CBC's 16th, including five of the past six. De Smet Jesuit High School is the only other team in Mid-States history to win four titles in a row, from 1997-2000.
Senior defenseman Ben Jones is the only player who has been on ice for all four championships.
"It's pretty special," he said. "Coming here as a freshman, I didn't think I was going to play and I made the team as a sixth defenseman. I've played four years and it's been amazing.
"I love the school to death. ... I love CBC hockey more than anything, the CBC community, all the alums and what they stand for."
Of goaltender Jack Caruso, a junior, the CBC coach said: "Without him, who knows what the score would have been after the first period. He was terrific down here again," a reference to Caruso's stellar play last year in CBC's 5-2 win vs. SLUH in the finals.
Caruso was the game MVP.
"One hundred percent no one else deserves the MVP of this game besides that kid," Dawe said, adding that in the final, CBC "fought off the adversity, battled early in the game, getting one (goal) and building off that was just awesome."
Before every game, the team says the same prayer that is said before classes, responding "pray for us" to the name St. John Baptist de LaSalle and "forever" to the phrase "Jesus in our hearts."
"We just did our 'I am One' pledge which is about brotherhood and our Catholic faith, so I'd say sure (faith) is tied in here," Dawe said.
CBC lost to SLUH twice in the regular season, including a 3-0 loss Jan. 1, before pulling off a 4-1 win Jan. 20. The Cadets also lost twice to Edwardsville in their 23-5 season but rebounded with 4-2 and 6-0 victories over Edwardsville in the semifinals.
"Not many people thought we were going to make it past them because they're a good team," Jones said. "But we played the best two games we had all year against them probably. We were an underdog here and still won."
The team, which was seeded second, also stepped by a tough St. John Vianney team in the playoffs.
SLUH, 24-4 this year, won the Mid-States championship in 2013 and was the runner-up in 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2016. The Junior Billikens also have been a final four participant three other times since 2008. The last time CBC lost a championship game was to SLUH in 2013, 2-1 in overtime.
"We didn't have our best game and they did, so hat's off to them," SLUH coach Kevin Fitzpatrick said. "I love these kids. They give everything they have, and I couldn't be prouder of them. They're awesome kids. I'm very fortunate."