Titans boys hockey 2024 season wraps up at state tournament

“We had to rebuild a lot in a very short amount of time”

By Than Acuff 

The hope was that after making it through a rash of injuries and illnesses toward the end of the season, the Crested Butte Titans hockey team would find their mojo once again to rally in the post season at the 4A state tournament as they prepared for their opening game against the Liberty Danes on Tuesday, February 27.

Unfortunately, they were hit once more as they prepared for their first game of the tournament losing Mason Weitman, which left the coaches needing to push the reset button once again.

“We had to rebuild a lot in a very short amount of time,” says head coach Joey Otsuka. “We came up with lines, a new breakout and got some extra ice time. After our last practice before the game, I felt really positive and I thought the team was feeling confident and focused.”

Crested Butte faced Liberty early in February during the regular season, but they were in the throes of their roster issues and significantly depleted and lost 6-2. 

“I feel like we almost had an advantage, since we were missing so many players in the first game, we were kind of an unknown quantity,” says Otsuka.

The Danes came out in the first period to fire off several chances on the Titans’ net, but goalie Ryder Church made the saves, and the Titans defense cleared the puck from harm’s way. The Titans got quality shifts from the younger players but the Lancers’ direct approach to the Titans’ net soon paid off scoring seven minutes into the game and a 1-0 lead after one period of play.

“They have a good core offensive group and a lot of shifty players that can get in there and create havoc, but we were prepared for an offense like that,” says Otsuka.

Still, Otsuka has always touted the second period as a critical period in any game and the Titans came out at a faster pace turning the game in their favor.

“That’s been the theme all year,” says Otsuka. “We’ve done that so many times this year that we got into a rhythm.”

Grady Dietrich had a couple early chances on net including a shot off the crossbar, and the pace of the Titans eventually resulted in a Danes’ penalty for a powerplay two minutes into the period.

Patience with the puck paid off for the Titans during the powerplay as Voyta Jirka took the puck wide and waited to find Rhodes Moffat in the high slot with a pass. Moffat fired on net and the Danes goalie made the initial save, but Dietrich crashed the slot to punch the rebound in tying the game 1-1.

Liberty looked to turn the game back in their favor pressing the Titans but team defense and quality backchecks opened another chance for Crested Butte. Ethan Suazo scooped up a loose puck and found Dietrich open cross ice with a pass and Dietrich skated to net. His initial attempt was denied but Carson Zummach followed to score the rebound for a 2-1 lead. Liberty responded late in the period and the teams went into the third period tied 2-2 with the season on the line.

“It would have been nice to keep them off the scoreboard in the second period,” says Otsuka. “But I thought it would be a tied game or a one-goal game going into the third period.”

Liberty took back the momentum to open the third scoring back-to-back goals to build a 4-2 lead while the Titans missed two powerplay opportunities to respond.

“It was a battle, we just came out a little flat-footed, but they still wanted it,” says Otsuka.

That effort did pay off as team defense led to a loose puck for Suazo to collect and, just like before, he found Dietrich open up the ice. This time Liberty was better prepared with a defenseman back in position, but Dietrich dropped him and then beat the Liberty goalie with a double move to score and pull the Titans to within one goal.

A minute later the Titans were on another powerplay, but the back of the net eluded them and Liberty would eventually score to ice the 5-3 win and end the Titans’ season. Church finished the game with 30 saves.

“There was a lot of growth this season,” says Otsuka. “We were 0-12 during the fall club season but once we hit our mid-season stride, the players really started to believe in themselves and started to push the coaches for more and that’s what you want. Now, the younger guys know what it takes because our seniors Grady, Dom (Cerio), Reed (Harper), Rhodes and Voyta set the precedence.”

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