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Three Duluth youth hockey teams headed to nationals

Three teams from the Duluth IceForum are headed to their national championship tournaments, including the AAA Thunder U16 team coached by former Gwinnett Gladiators captain Paul Flache.

Also qualifying were the AA Phoenix U16 team and the Phoenix Bantam Major U14 team.

The Thunder, ranked among top 10 teams in the U.S., rolled through their district tournament before having to hold on for a 3-2 victory against the Washington Little Caps. They won all three of the round-robin games by a combined score of 26-2, but were tied 2-2 in the championship game. The Thunder kept pushing and got the game-winner in the third period, punching their ticket for nationals.

Their group at the tournament, which is April 3-7 in Pittsburgh, includes the Boston Jr. Bruins, the L.A. Junior Kings and one of the best-known prep schools in the country, Shattuck-St. Mary. Among Shattuck's long list of alumni are Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby.

"Hopefully they don't circle Shattuck because it's not our first game," Flache said of his players. "We've got to focus on the other games first. But any time they can play a prestigious team like that, they're excited.

"They wanted to play them all year and we tried to schedule some exhibition games, we just could never make it work. But they're really excited about the national championship."

The AA Phoenix U16 team qualified with a thrilling performance at their state qualifying tournament earlier this month at The Cooler in Alpharetta.

The Phoenix were down 4-0 in the first eight minutes of the opening game, only to come roaring back and tie it with three minutes left in regulation.

They gave one up a minute later, but scored two goals in the final 44 seconds to win.

The championship game against the Marietta Knights was just as intense. Still scoreless with just 10 minutes left in the game, the Phoenix opened a floodgate with their first goal.

"Whoever got the first one was getting a huge lift," head coach Jim Graefe said.

That was the Phoenix, who ended up winning 4-0 for a trip to nationals.

"Both goalies were standing on their heads," Graefe said. "The four goals were a product of getting the first one."

They head to Michigan for the nationals April 3-7.

The team is mostly made up of Gwinnett products -- Tyler Brinckman (Norcross), Austin Dye (Brookwood), Kyle Galloway (Lanier), Joey Graefe (Mill Creek), Brent Leonard (Mill Creek), Jack Ryan (North), Dylan Teilhaber (Norcross), Justin Tordik (North), Jeremy Vandekerkhove (Lanier) and Chris Zervas (Mill Creek).

Also on the team are Hastin Simmons (Winder Barrow), Michael deAntonio (The Classical School), Caleb Santa Maria (Druid Hills), Matthew Onorato (Northview), Lukas Babusak (Chatahoochee), Noah Belinfante (Lambert), and Parks Owensby (home-schooled).

"This season has been up and down," Graefe said. "We won a tournament in Cincinnati and finished second at one in D.C. But we weren't spectacular."

The team from the ICE in Cumming won the league by a half game and the Phoenix had lost to Marietta both previous times they played this season.

"So no one was expecting us to win," Graefe said. "When it was over, I was in awe."

The Phoenix U14 team had to beat its biggest rival, the Fire from The Cooler, to become Georgia's representative at the national tournament in Charlotte the first week of April.

Seven of the 16 kids on the team have been together since mites and this year's roster only included three new players. The team has outscored its opponents 240-101 behind an excellent goaltending tandem in Michael Sobczyk and Andrew Ghimpeteanu.

After a 3-9 start to the season, the Phoenix had a positive locker room talk and ended up with a 38-13-1 record. The Phoenix won four of the seven tournaments they were in.

They earned a spot at nationals by sweeping the Fire in a best-of-three series. The Phoenix were 0-3-1 against the Fire this season leading up to the state playoff, but all of those were one-goal losses.

Game 1 went into the third period tied 1-1 before the Phoenix took advantage of a 5-on-3 power play to grab the lead. They doubled that margin on the remaining 5-on-4 power play and added one more for a convincing 4-1 win.

The Fire responded in Game 2, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first period. The Phoenix again capitalized on Fire penalties in the second and sparked an offensive outburst that left them ahead 5-2 with one period to go. The Fire scored a couple of quick goals and tied it with less than four minutes left in regulation, but the Phoenix got the game-winner in overtime.

Defensemen for the Phoenix are Seth Bacon, Brandon Reidy, Nick Zellmann, Cael Cernich and Jacob Cutshall. The forwards are Michael Leon, Matthew VonDwingelo, Chandler Schneider, Austin Magera, Seth Johnston, Jacob Nash, Cam Miller, Dominic Barcorolo and Davis Middeke.