2018-19 WLC 18u National
The Little Caps 18U team recently captured the 2018-19 Southeast District Championship, earning the right to compete at this year’s USA Hockey National Championships. For four team members, that win is their third-consecutive Southeast District Title, and they are headed for the USA Hockey National Tournament for the third straight year. Not many players earn the right to compete for a national title in their careers. For Connor Leslie, Victor Hugo, Ryan Lenaghan, and Max Thiessen, earning their third-straight is a fantastic accomplishment.
“Returning to nationals for a third year in a row is a dream come true,” offered Hugo, “going to nationals just once was amazing, but getting the opportunity to go a third time is unbelievable. This shows how resilient and determined we are, and it sets a good example for the younger Little Caps teams to follow.”
“It is very exciting to return to nationals,” says Lenaghan, “my teammates’ work ethic has always brought us to Nationals, despite various challenges throughout the season. I am very grateful for my teammates who came from other teams and excited for them to experience their first Nationals.” Leslie added “Words can’t describe how blessed I am to return to Nationals for another year. Our team has faced plenty of adversity throughout the entire season due to the ample amount of injuries our team has had.”
“It was a dream to make it to Nationals just once,” offers Thiessen. “Lots of hockey players go throughout their entire youth hockey careers without making it there. To do it three times is just incredible. None of them were easy. Both last season and this season we had to pull out a win in overtime at the Southeast Districts Championships to earn the opportunity. It takes a gritty group of players to face that kind of pressure and succeed. I'm really proud of the group of guys we have this season and I'm looking forward to playing with them this April.”
Each player had a slightly different journey through the WLC to this point, and each brings a unique perspective to just what this accomplishment means. Leslie first made the Little Caps as a Pee Wee minor, and for the last seven years has donned his Caps jersey as a starting goaltender. “I wanted to compete at the highest level I could against some of the best players in the country. I have been with the Washington Little Caps organization now for 7 seasons, from first year Pee Wee to U18. I have had fantastic coaches and teammates and some of the best goaltending coaches I could ever ask for. The biggest struggle/challenge has been managing my team between hockey and school.” That’s a challenge all players at this level face, but Connor seems to be handling that particular challenge quite well, as he carries a 4.3 GPA as a Junior at Heritage High School.
Thiessen is also a 7-year member of the WLC. “Ever since I was a squirt, I always wanted to play AAA hockey and compete against some of the best players in the country,” says Max. “I also had friends that I grew up playing with trying out for the [Little Caps] that PeeWee Minor year and I wanted to stick with them. I was excited to wear the Capitals’ uniform and the chance to skate on the same ice they practice on was really great.”
Hugo had a different, but no less rewarding path, made even more impressive by its rough beginning. “I wanted to play for the Little Caps because I knew it would be the next step in my development if I wanted to make it to the next level,” said Hugo. “I first tried out for Little Caps my peewee minor year. I didn’t make it, but decided to try out again next year. Again, I didn’t make it. I tried a final time my bantam minor year and finally made it.”
Now, Hugo’s jersey bears the coveted “C” as he captains his team to its third National tournament, and the pride this soft-spoken leader feels for his team and his teammates is palpable. “The biggest challenge of my Little Caps career was definitely watching from the bench at Nationals my U16 year. In the [2017-18 District] championship game, I broke my collarbone and had to get surgery. Sadly, I couldn’t play in the National Tournament, but I still went with the guys, helped out, and supported my team. It was hard to watch my team play without me but it was a good experience to have and I grew a lot as a leader because of it.”
Now, Hugo will join his teammates on the ice at Nationals, and put that experience to good use. “The best part was winning the District Championship game this year. We had beaten TPH 4 other times before the championship game, and when it came time for the 5th, we determined to make it 5. They took us to overtime, but that feeling of immense joy once we scored is indescribable.”
Lenaghan joined the Caps for the first time at the 15Pure level in 2016, the first year USA Hockey offered a 15Pure division. Ryan and his teammates enjoyed loads of success during that first year, winning the North American Prospects Hockey Leaguechampionship, along with the Southeast District title. But it hasn’t been easy, with injuries plaguing the defensive corps each year at Districts and Nationals. “The best parts of my experience were the NAPHL championships and National Tournaments. The biggest challenge has been injuries for our defensemen in Districts, last year and currently.” Unfortunately, Ryan was one of those defensemen injured at Districts, battling as he always does with his physical style of play, until a questionable hit sent him into the boards during game one, resulting in a concussion and the end of his District tournament. But he showed his resiliency, staying with his team and cheering them to success. He may not have been on the ice for that final win, but he was a big part of his team taking the title. Spend a few minutes around Ryan and his teammates and you can see the pride they take in each other.
Another Little Caps player, Zack Murray, is also on his way to his third National Tournament, although only his second as a Little Cap. Murray made the tournament at the 15Pure level, playing then with the Alaska Oilers. “When I made it to Nationals the first year, I was just so excited to be at the biggest tournament in the US. Then we were knocked out, I was crushed and thought I had lost my opportunity at a National championship. Now going back for a third time is very exciting for me to know that I still have a chance to win it all.”
Murray’s linemate Austin Pick is excited for his second trip to Nationals. “It feels amazing to be going back to Nationals, we have fought through a lot of adversity this season and it feels great to be representing the Southeast District again.”
These players’ excitement at returning to Nationals is shared by their teammates, some of whom will be competing there for the first time. “Last spring, I realized that I had one year left of youth hockey and I’ve never been to Nationals,” states Caps Defenseman Paolo Meany. “I came to the Little Caps because I knew it was my best chance to get there.” Christian Tschampel and John Billingsley, veteran Tier-I players from the area, are similarly proud of what their team has accomplished together. “I’m very excited to go to nationals this year,” says Billingsley, “this has been a big goal for our team throughout this entire year and this will be tremendous opportunity for us.” Tschampel added “our team has prepared all year to go to nationals. We have made it our primary goal from the start of the season. I am very excited to be able to go and get the opportunity to play against other top teams.”
The varying paths each of these players has followed will merge in Grand Rapids April 3 -10 as the 18U Team takes on the 15 best teams in the country to decide the national title. Where do their paths take them from there? Most of them aspire to play junior hockey at the top levels in the country. Thiessen is looking forward to his senior year at Gonzaga. Some players will head directly to college and club hockey. It’s unlikely this squad will assemble again in its current form. They just have one piece of business left this season before they can turn to those concerns.
“We’re having too much fun to stop now,” says Head Coach Matt Thomas. “The guys set a goal early this season to be sitting exactly where we are today. Along the way every single guy was called upon at some point, and they’ve never let each other down. It’s been an absolute pleasure to be a part of this group.”
It’s difficult to get any of these players to consider themselves a role model, despite their obvious accomplishments and direct impact on young players in this area. But if you press them a bit, you come across some pretty good advice for our young players. The invariably direct Lenaghan states it simply -- “work as hard as you can, and value the life experience you get from it.” Leslie offers the same direct line -- “Always stay focused, never give up, and be the best teammate on and off the ice.”
Thiessen let his passion for the game guide his advice for young players. “The most important thing when you are playing hockey is to enjoy yourself. I had a great group of friends to hang out with during the week at practice and on long road trips. If you want to play Tier I hockey you really have to love it. It is a huge time commitment and you have to make some sacrifices, but if you love it those sacrifices are worth it.”
Murray echoed his teammates’ advice about hard work, and touched on what awaits those who are willing to put in that work. “The National tournaments have been some of my fondest memories from hockey. It takes a lot of work to make it there, but it’s all worth it once you step on ice for the biggest event in youth hockey.”
Fittingly, the normally reserved Hugo opened up on this point. “Never give up,” he says. “It sounds cliché, but it’s some of the most important advice I was ever given. It took me 3 years to make the Little Caps, but in those years I never gave up. So, if you ever feel down or like you want to quit, remember that dreams don’t fall into your lap. They take time to achieve, and you have to work hard and never give up in order to follow them.”
You can follow the Little Caps in action at the 2019 National Championships here:
Note: The Little Caps 18U squad includes a fifth potential 3-time Nationals competitor. Unfortunately, long-time Little Cap Owen Morgan was unable to participate in the Southeast District Tournament this year, and will not participate at Nationals. Otherwise he too would be headed back for a third time.
Tampa Bay, FL – The Washington Little Capitals 18u team won the USA Hockey Southeast District Tournament on Sunday, beating TPH Thunder in an overtime thriller. With the victory, the team will represent the Southeast in the National Tournament next month.
The final game was a rematch from Game 1 of round-robin play, when the Little Caps beat the Thunder by a score of 4-1. Connor Leslie led the team, saving 30 of 31 shots, and Max Romeo contributed 2 goals; a rebound from a powerful Jake Smith rush and an empty net goal late to seal the win. Two other goals were of the highlight reel variety—a behind-the-back pass from Zack Murray to Jake Smith and an end-to-end rush from Paolo Meany for the game winner.
“We showed some nerves in the first half of game one,” said Hockey Director and Head Coach Matt Thomas. “It really set the tone for the rest of the weekend.”
The Little Caps also lost one of their defensemen to injury in this contest, leaving the team with only four healthy defensemen for the next three and a half games. With Ryan Lenaghan out of the lineup, Max Thiessen, Victor Hugo, Malik Lansdown, and Paolo Meany would go on to share all the defensive minutes for the remainder of the tournament. “We’re extremely lucky to have four defensemen capable of playing that kind of workload,” said Thomas. “They each played every other shift for almost four games in less than four days. It was unbelievable.”
In game 2, the Little Caps beat the Florida Alliance by a score of 9-2. The first period set the tone for the day, as the team went into the first intermission leading 4-0 and not surrendering a scoring chance against. The Little Caps would cruise from there, with Gavin Ross saving 17 of 19 shots against. Leading the way offensively were Zack Murray and John Billingsley each with two goals and two assists, Paolo Meany and Austin Pick with 4 assists each, and Christian Tschampel with two goals of his own. In all, ten different players had points in the game.
“Game two was a comprehensive win,” noted Assistant Coach Derek Sanborn. “Everyone contributed in a dominant possession game, a lot of guys got some momentum scoring some points, and we locked ourselves into the finals. The boys really rose to the challenge.”
Game 3 was a bit of a ‘rivalry match’, with the Little Caps beating Team Maryland by a score of 3-2 in overtime. Though the game had no bearing on standings, with the Little Caps locked into the finals and Team Maryland eliminated, the teams put on a great performance for a raucous crowd. Zack Murray opened the scoring and Jake Smith followed with both the game-tying and game-winning goals. Down by a goal and shorthanded in the waning minutes of the third period, Christian Tschampel sprung Smith for a slick breakaway finish. In overtime, Smith collected a pass from Romeo in a 2-on-1 rush and sent a laser past the sprawling goaltender. At the other end of the rink, Connor Leslie and Gavin Ross each had a hand in the winning effort, stopping 21 of 23 shots combined.
“The boys showed us another level of character and determination in this game,” said Thomas. “We knew we were in the finals the next day, but the boys just refused to lose. It was really remarkable—and a great preview of the kind of day we had in store on Sunday.”
In the Championship contest, TPH struck early in the first period with their only goal of the day. In the second period, the Little Caps would respond with a Declan Martin rocket. The goal was assisted by Christian Tschampel after drawing attention with some shifty moves off the rush and providing a great pass to his linemate.
The teams would remain scoreless with some staunch stretches from both teams. Connor Leslie saved his best performance of the weekend for the final contest, stopping 33 of 34. Though both teams had power play opportunities throughout the 3rd period, it would take more than 15:00 of the first overtime to find a winner.
After a Thunder boarding penalty left Zack Murray with a dented facemask and bloodied nose, the Little Caps went to work on the powerplay. Center Thomas Krisztinicz won the offensive zone draw cleanly to Paolo Meany who slid the puck to his defense partner Max Thiessen. As he faked a shot and drew attention from the Thunder penalty kill, Thiessen adeptly sent a return pass to Meany, who delivered a heavy snapshot towards the net. The shot redirected over a helpless TPH goaltender and the celebration was on.
“I don’t even think I yelled, I was just so excited my voice wouldn’t work,” said Meany when asked about his reaction. “I had been shooting well all day, it was nice to finally get one.”
With the win, the Little Caps concluded a dominant season against fellow Southeast opponents. In all, the team went 11-0 against national-bound clubs in the region during regular season and playoff competition.
“That’s quite a testament to the character and resolve of this group,” said Thomas. “We’ve repeatedly shown we can find a way to win even in the most severe circumstances, and we found a way to play our best hockey at the right time. I’m really proud of these guys.”
The win also marks a third consecutive National Championship appearance for 2001 Little Caps players Ryan Lenaghan, Max Thiessen, Victor Hugo, and Connor Leslie.
The USA Hockey National Championship runs from April 3-8 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Update: Tryout times have been updated In order to better accommodate school vacations, allow for increased WLC staffing presence during the critical PVAHA USA Hockey Player Development Camps, and avoid any potential for last-minute cancellations due to NHL Capitals conflicts through the weekend. Additionally, we've added time slots for Parent Informational Meetings. See updated dates/times by clicking on the flyer on our homepage.
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