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Flache-coached U16 Duluth team in hunt for national championship

Forward Killian Gray of the U16 AAA Thunder celebrates a goal against the Ohio Blue Jackets during a game Feb. 2 at the IceForum in Duluth.

Forward Killian Gray of the U16 AAA Thunder celebrates a goal against the Ohio Blue Jackets during a game Feb. 2 at the IceForum in Duluth.

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Austin Beaulieu (24) is part of a dynamic group of forwards playing for this year's U16 AAA Thunder team that plays out of the IceForum in Duluth.

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The U16 AAA Thunder's defenseman Tyler Tate looks to break the puck out of the zone during a game against the Ohio Blue Jackets on Feb. 2 at the Duluth IceForum.

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Former Gwinnett Gladiators captain Paul Flache talks to his U16 AAA Thunder team during a game on Feb. 2 at the IceForum in Duluth. After retiring from a 10-year playing career, Flache was named the Thunder head coach and has guided the team to a No. 9 ranking nationally.

The rumbles started this summer. Just from the epicenter.

A few people knew how good this U16 AAA Thunder hockey team out of the IceForum in Duluth could be.

Paul Flache knew it. The head coach, himself just a few months removed from a 10-year pro playing career, knew he had the makings of a great team.

Not just a good team. Not just a team that might give the big names from up north a run for their money. A great team. One that could change the perception of Southern hockey.

"I was actually really impressed with how they skated (at tryouts in May)," said Flache, who grew up in Peterborough, Ontario. "Coming from the South, you're not sure what you're getting. Then in the summer training, I got to meet some of them and their work ethic was incredible.

"They're hungry down here."

The second week of the season, the rumbles became a boom.

The Thunder went 4-0 against Detroit's finest, including traditional heavyweights Victory Honda and Belle Tire.

"These are teams they never really beat," Flache said. "I think a lot of it was we kind of stunned Honda and Belle Tire. One, because of our speed. Two, because of our intensity. We never back down."

They came home to a No. 1 ranking in the nation.

A group of kids from the South were voted the best hockey U16 team in the U.S.

"Our teams in the past haven't had too much success," said dynamic forward Aaron O'Neill, who has been playing in the Thunder program for four years. "We've been steadily growing. At the beginning of the year, we went 4-0 against what was supposed to be one of the top teams in the country from Michigan. Everybody was like, 'Whoa, wait, did the Thunder just do that? We better watch out now.'

"Now when we happen to lose, teams are celebrating like they won the national championship. Last year, it would have just been like, 'Oh, we beat the Thunder.' It gives you that much more energy to play better. You know they respect you now because of what we've accomplished this year."

The Thunder have stayed near the top of the ranking throughout a grueling 40-game regular season, which included a 19-0-1 run. The 20-game unbeaten stretch ended in one of just three home games the Thunder had, a 3-1 loss Feb. 3. to the Ohio Blue Jackets, who did celebrate like it was the playoffs already.

"We're definitely one of the toughest teams in the league, so when people beat us, it's always an accomplishment," said Connor Wood, a big-hitting forward who is a junior at Lanier High School. "At the beginning of the season, we were like that against other teams. But now, it's the other way around."

They've been ranked No. 3 for much of the year and on Saturday begin their quest for a national championship in earnest.

The Thunder play the Atlanta Fire out of the Cooler in Alpharetta in a best-of-three series to determine Georgia's representative at the districts. Game 1 is at 11:40 a.m. Saturday in Duluth. Game 2 is set for later that night at 7:30 at the Cooler. Game 3, if necessary, is Sunday at 11:50 a.m. back in Duluth.

The winner of the district tournament, which includes the champions from Florida, the Carolinas and D.C., earns a spot at the national championships in Pittsburgh.

"From Day 1, my assistant coach (Rick Fossier) and myself both said that if we don't believe it and we don't say it with conviction, then our kids aren't going to believe it," Flache said. "I stood up in front of the parents the very first meeting of the year and said our goal is the national championship."

Flache went about putting a system in place that took advantage of the team's talent and an unquenchable willingness to work hard.

"Our team thrives on speed," said Teddy Rotenberger, their calm and quietly confident captain. "It's one of the keys to our team. We're not big. We have some big players, but our speed is definitely one of our biggest assets."

They use that speed to create chaos, often playing with an edge that's hard to match.

It starts with a collection of forwards that is among the best in the league.

Mitch Fossier is the team's leading scorer with 61 points in 40 games, but he is by no means the only threat. Austin Beaulieu has 43 points in 40 games. O'Neill has 34 points, no penalty minutes and is already being recruited by top colleges. Wood and Killian Gray each have more than 30 points and are devastating checkers.

Nathan Krusko (43 points) and Andrew Kluge (27 points) are relied on heavily for leadership as assistant captains, while Phillip Zbell, Logan Orem, Garrett Elmore and Cody Thomas round out a deep and talented forward group.

Getting the puck out of the zone and into those forwards' hands is a skilled corps of defensemen. Rotenberger is chief among them and surrounded by stalwart group, including Benjamin Lau, Zachary Greenwood, Cole Crawford and Cory Sebastian. Adding offensive-minded blueliners Tyler Tate and Drew Holcombe to the mix just makes the team more potent.

And of course, backstopping the whole effort -- one that's seen the team outscore it's opponents 170-81 -- are goaltenders Joseph Cruz and Jared Schlemmer.

"(Flache) has us definitely playing a very aggressive style of game," Mitch Fossier said. "We're kind of an in-your-face kind of team. Two forecheckers most of the time. Be physical and aggressive."

From the first practice, this was a different way to play.

"It was intense," Rotenberger said. "But (Flache) is always positive. He's always honest. He's trying to bring the best out of all of us."

The intensity isn't always easy to maintain -- not from a physical standpoint, but from a mental one. If the Thunder have an Achilles' heel, it's their consistency.

"That's been one problem we've had all year and we've gotten away with it because of our skill and our speed," Flache said. "The first part of the year, we started games off poorly and picked it up in the second and third."Well, we changed that. We came out great in the first and then we'd have a terrible second and a good third."

For the most part, the Thunder (31-7-1-1) have been able to overcome those lapses.

"(Flache) knows what it's like to be in playoffs," Wood said. "He's an experienced guy. When we're satisfied with winning by two or three goals, he knows that's not going to work in playoffs. We have to get that out of our heads."

It bit them last weekend in the league's championship (a tournament that had no bearing on the national playoffs).

"I think we learned our lesson," Flache said. "We didn't play very well and we lost a 1-0 game because we didn't play three periods. After that, we played three periods in almost every game. They're learning consistency, not just game to game, but within a game, is huge."

The Thunder won the next two and got some help to advance to the semifinals. They beat Pittsburgh to get the championship before falling to top-ranked St. Louis in the finals.

"Yeah, we lost in the final, but that's also part of the learning process," Flache said. "Hopefully we learned the bitter taste of defeat and it helps us along our way to our goal (of a national title).

"I know we have the talent to do it. I know we have the team to do it. And I think they're starting to believe in themselves now."

This Thunder team is made up of kids from several states. Many are from the Atlanta area, but others, like Rotenberger and O'Neill live too far away to practice with the team during the week.

It's an interesting dynamic, one that isn't necessarily the detriment some imagine.

"That's one of the best things about this team," said O'Neill, who is a year younger than most of his teammates and lives in Nashville. "They say we might be at a disadvantage because we don't get to practice together all the time. But I think it helps our team chemistry. When we come in after two weeks, everybody's excited to see each other. Whereas if you're together all the time, you might start to get tired of each other."

Fossier, who goes to school at King's Academy in Woodstock, agreed that it's a cohesive unit despite the geographical challenges.

"Even though we're not always together, when we are, we're a really close team," he said. "The coaching is phenomenal this year. The guys really like each other. I've played with a lot of them for a good portion of my hockey life, so we do have chemistry."

Throughout this season, they've come around to the idea that a national championship is within their grasp.

"Since we got to training camp, Coach Flache and Coach Fossier have always believed in us," Rotenberger said. "I think everybody, throughout the year, with our success has started to believe we can actually win."

Flache believed it from the start.

"I've been pretty fortunate to have this team," Flache said. "They've been in the league eight or nine years and they took a beating. Originally, they were losing like 17-0 to Belle Tire. So that's why they're so hungry.

"They've also done a lot of work at developing talent. Now they've hungry, but they're also good."

Good enough, these kids from the South, to be national champions even.