Phoenix bring home national title to Duluth

Down a goal in the second period of the national semifinals, Seth Johnston hammered home a feed from Michael Leon.

It was the spark the Atlanta Phoenix U14 bantam major team needed to bury Nashville and go on to win the national championship in Charlotte, N.C., 10 days ago.

The Phoenix, who play out of the Duluth IceForum, will be honored Friday at the Gwinnett Gladiators' playoff game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. They are just the second team from Georgia to win a national title.

"Seth Johnston's goal was the biggest one of the tournament," head coach Bobby Cernich said. "He got that pass from Michael Leon to the far side of the net and hit it so hard you could probably hear it in the other rink.

"That woke up our team."

The Phoenix went undefeated in pool play and advanced to the win-or-go-home quarterfinals against Utah. Leon gave Atlanta a quick lead, scoring just 1:52 into the game, but it was a dogfight from there.

Utah tied it on a power-play halfway through the first period. The Phoenix answered less than 90 seconds later on a goal by Jacob Nash and grabbed a 3-1 lead 3:42 into the second on Nash's second goal.

Utah got within a goal, but Atlanta held on until the final buzzer.

"That team played great team hockey," Cernich said. "The team that should have given us the biggest fits was Nashville.

"We let Utah hang around and hang around. It gave them energy."

Nashville did give Atlanta some fits early on in the semifinal. The Junior Predators jumped out to a 2-0 lead and were up 3-2 early in the second period.

"We started flat and slow," Cernich said. "But we picked it up pretty quick."

Johnston scored the resonating goal and the Phoenix poured it on from there in a 7-3 rout. Atlanta took full advantage of the penalty trouble Nashville put itself in, going 4-for-8 on the power play.

"We practiced that power play and penalty kill all year just for state and nationals," Cernich said.

Johnston had two goals in the win, but Atlanta got goals from five other players -- Brandon Reidy, Austin Magera, Jacob Cutshall, Cameron Miller and Dominic Barcarolo. Leon had three assists.

"I wouldn't say we have a star on our team," Cernich said. "The gap from top to bottom is very small."

The Phoenix also were helped greatly by the play of goaltender Michael Sobczyk, who made 29 saves in the win.

"I believe we have the best two goalies in the state," Cernich said of Sobczyk and Andrew Ghimpeteanu. "They carry our team.

"We only lost two games all season by more than one goal. So we were in every game we played."

After blasting Nashville, the team again overcame a one-goal deficit to beat Northern Kentucky 6-3 in the finals and take home the national championship.

"I really thought these kids thought there was no way they were going to lose," Cernich said. "The feeling of beating Nashville by that much and, then, playing Northern Kentucky was a surprise."

Northern Kentucky's semifinal against powerful Omaha started 15 minutes after Atlanta's game. The players all rushed from the locker room to the next rink over to watch the end of the game.

"We really thought it would be Omaha," Cernich said.

Northern Kentucky upset Omaha and then played a tight game with the Phoenix for the first period.

Nash got Atlanta off to another good start with a goal 1:03 into the game and the team led 2-1 on the first of three goals from Magera.

The Norse scored two goals late in the first period to lead 3-2. But Nash and Reidy, a defenseman, scored two goals 10 seconds apart early in the second period to propel the Phoenix to the win and the title.

"The first team meeting of the season we set three goals," Cernich said. "No. 1 was to win state and go to nationals. Once we did that, they had the confidence."

All season, the Phoenix got the job done with no more than 14 skaters. They won one regular-season tournament with just 10. They finished another in Rochester, N.Y., with just eight -- and one of those was playing with a broken wrist. Having a short bench means everyone has to contribute.

"You roll your lines, one, two, three," Cernich said. "You can't line match in youth hockey. Hopefully your best is better than their best."

It was.

"It's a big deal for these kids," Cernich said. "It was incredible. I hope it ties them together forever and they never forget it."

The national tournament was the week before spring break, which left little time to celebrate. Some players drove straight from Charlotte to vacation spots like Jacksonville, Fla., to catch an already planned cruise.But they will be honored Friday by the Gladiators and have a banquet on April 27. The championship rings take two months to arrive, but once they do, there will be a presentation at the IceForum.