By Richard Smith
West Valley Preps
Led by their star player, the Centennial Coyotes won back-to-back state titles.
Not the Coyotes you’re thinking about. The Centennial Coyotes club hockey team.
And the spotlight was on senior Declan George instead of Zidane Thomas. George scored a goal for the Coyotes in their 4-3 Arizona High School Hockey Association Division II title game victory over Phoenix Horizon Feb. 3 at the Ice Den in Scottsdale.
“Last year we had just lost 12 seniors and I was worried that we wouldn’t have a team, however, I was announced captain and I had to change my view completely. We were in the bottom of the standings but we came together and destroyed teams so bad the closest game was 4-1 and that was the championship,” George stated in an email. “This year was completely different, we were confident and I used winning the state title win to convince kids that have always just played club to come out and play. We were the first seed and had all the confidence in the world. However what let us win is that we didn’t let that get to our heads.”
George traces his love for the game from the more well-known Coyotes.
“My grandparents got divorced and my dad wanted to do something for his mom. So he bough nosebleed seats to a Phoenix Coyotes game, she loved it and bought glass season tickets, (the front row),” George stated. “She got three and since I was the oldest I got to go. I would go and sit and watch and absorb everything. The tickets came with a free skating pass and since I lived the closet to the rink my grandma gave me the pass and I have been playing ever since.”
He said hockey has always his my No. 1 sport. Yet, George has never had a thorough training regimen, instead remaining active playing pickup games of different sports and like flag football.
“My mom said I couldn’t play tackle football because it was too much contact, isn’t that funny,” George stated.
Nervous before his first game, George said he ate three Uncrustable sandwiches and scored three goals. Needless to say, the Smuckers sandwiches became a pregame ritual.
In an email, Centennial coach Greg Vaughn stated that George joined the club his freshman year and had a strong desire to be the best. He had the competitive nature right from the start but was still growing and needed time to find his way on a very veteran team.
A while after joining the young program, George said Centennial had its breakthrough moment in a scrimmage in Flagstaff against the favored club team from that town.
The Coyotes’ goalie kept them in it, maintaining a 1-1 despite being outshot by more than a 2-1 margin.
“I get a penalty with like five minutes left and the scorekeeper and the penalty box people were talking about how bad I am to my face and I’m just smiling, not saying anything. With three seconds left (in the penalty) I say, ‘It’s okay I’m going to score one right now for you.’ And sure enough as I get out of the box the puck comes to me and I get a breakaway and put the puck in the net. I turn and the expression on the score keepers face was priceless,” George stated.
Before the 2016-17 season, Vaughn said he asked George to change a few qualities so the team could look to him for leadership and guidance.
It worked. George was the linchpin for a young team that beat Horizon 4-1 in the 2017 final.
Then, George carried the team into a finals rematch with Horizon, scoring five times in a wild 7-4 semifinal victory against Scottsdale Desert Mountain. He led all Arizona players with 24 goals this season.
“This took some time but once he did and the team followed we knew we had our captain and we would accomplish great things with him. Without his leadership and leading by example we would not have gotten past our semifinal where he scored five goals and willed us to the championship,” Vaughn stated.
Player and coach differ on whether the second title was easier than the first. George stated winning as the underdog the previous year and returning most of the same team gave the Coyotes confidence.
Vaugn stated all 10 seniors this year contributed at some point in the two title runs. Defensemen Oscar Kahler and Ruskin Griffin along with goaltender Tyler Posivak anchored the back end.
Andrew Songstad, Carson Masten and Lucas Too provided the grit and determination down low to enable scoring opportunities. Vaughn stated the additions of Ricky Elmer, Shane Owens and Owen Gabriel helped us solidify three lines.
Yet, the path to a repeat was tougher.
“I believe the second one was tougher. We knew that everyone was gunning for us, they had nothing to lose. Going 17-3 isn’t easy and we are trying to build a program where success isn’t something we take for granted, it something we earn, it becomes an expectation that is passed down from your leaders and prior teams, it eventually becomes an expectation for the CC Hockey program,” Vaughn stated.
It is a different world from the hockey players than any other athletes on campus. For starters, several players are not even on campus.
The club hockey league allows for central schools that carry the team’s name to include a smattering of players from nearby schools. And Centennial has won two straight with the help of players from Sunrise Mountain and Ironwood.
“As a club team we get no credit or back up from the school. It is also hard to explain why not everyone on our team goes to Centennial,” George stated. “I have friends in student council and announcements who throw our name in at assemblies and on the announcements which helps get the word across. However I get asked every time I wear something for hockey (students respond), ‘We have a hockey team?’ But I love being the underdog.”
George said he wants to study law and attend law school at one of the four large universities in Arizona. He has not decided if he want to play hockey in college.
Vaughn said the Coyotes have had their share of success with kids playing in juniors and Division III NCAA schools.
“In Declan’s case I know that he wants to pursue law as a profession and wants to play college hockey somewhere in the state. I believe in Declan as a man, he has great parents and a solid support system. I know he is capable of making an impact and will be a welcome addition that provides great leadership and skill to any team,” Vaughn stated.