Napleton, St. Rita capture hockey championship over St. Viator

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Napleton, St. Rita capture hockey championship over St. Viator

By Pat Disabato
YourSeason.com

St. Rita goalie Marty Napleton has been marvelous all season a 31-8-2 mark, including 13 shutouts, and 1.45 goals-against average is testament to that.

Napleton, however, saved arguably his finest performance of the campaign for Friday night.

The junior netminder turned aside 28 shots, many in spectacular fashion, to carry St. Rita to a dominant 5-0 victory over St. Viator in the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois state championship at the United Center. Napleton earned Most Valuable Player honors for his performance.

Stan Sojka (assist) and Ricky Faron paced the offense, scoring two goals each. Jack Warren added a solo tally for the Mustangs.

Marty has been unbelievable all year, Faron said. He stood on his head tonight.

The state title was St. Ritas second in three seasons and the third overall for the storied program. The Mustangs (40-13-4), who won their fifth straight Kennedy Cup championship earlier this season, knocked off defending champion New Trier, the No. 1 seed, Saturday in the semifinals and then No. 2 St. Viator (50-17-5) in a matter of six days.

All the kids played well, said St. Rita coach Craig Ferguson, who just completed his eighth season. We outplayed them. We were the better team tonight.

Trailing 2-0 entering the third period, St. Viator had a chance to mount a comeback with a power play just 47 seconds in. The Lions had two wonderful chances to dent the net, but Napleton denied Jackson Owens on a breakaway and Michael Decker, after being stopped on his first attempt, fired wide on a rebound chance.

The failure to convert appeared to sap life from St. Viator.

That was big to kill that penalty, Faron said. It took away all their momentum.

The Mustangs then put the game away. Warren hammered home a one-timer off a pretty pass from Sojka at 13:33 to make it 3-0. It was Warrens 23rd goal of the season. Just 1:22 later, Sojka went to his backhand to beat goalie Robert Schmidt for a 4-0 advantage. It was the St. Rita captains second goal of the game and 10th of the season.

Then Faron, camped out just right of the crease, made it 5-0 at 9:46. It was Farons second goal of the game and 63rd of the season. Chris Foley and Luke Botica picked up assists.

I think it was our composure, said Foley, who was injured most of the season and was limited to 29 games. Weve played in enough big games where we werent really nervous. Its a bigger stage, but just another game.

It was non-stop action for the first seven minutes of the opening period, void of a single whistle that would have caused play to halt.

Play was finally stopped at 10:07 and would be halted again just four seconds later, when Sojka batted home his own rebound at 10:03 for a 1-0 lead.

The early deficit seemed to wake-up St. Viator, which picked up the pace considerably the rest of the period. The Lions were awarded two power plays one at 9:35 and another at 3:38, but failed to capitalize. A lack of effort wasnt the problem; The Lions had scoring chances, but Napleton was a brick wall.

The junior absolutely stoned St. Viators David Kellner, whose rebound from just outside the crease was miraculously stopped by a sprawling Napleton. Moments later, Owens one-timer from the slot was kicked aside by Napleton.

Just 22 seconds after the Lions second power play elapsed and with 1:16 remaining in the opening period, Faron scored to extend the lead to 2-0. Faron made a nifty move around the Lions Ryan Santorsola just inside the blue line, before completing a give-and-go with Foley.

The score may as well been 10-0 with the way Napleton was playing. Slap shots, snap shots, wrist shots, breakaways, rebounds, you name it, St. Viator tried it. Nothing, however, could make its way past Napleton. The Lions Sean Thornton will have nightmares thinking about Napletons sliding blocker save that preserved the shutout late in the third.

After the New Trier game, I had a lot of confidence, Napleton said. It carried over to this game. I was just seeing the puck well. This is an unbelievable feeling. To win the Kennedy Cup and state, fortunately we had the guys and coaches to do it.

Dennis Rasmussen looks to build off experience

Dennis Rasmussen looks to build off experience

The Blackhawks’ offseason moves have once again left holes, especially among the forward lines. Considering the experience Dennis Rasmussen gained last season, he could certainly grab the third- or fourth-line center spot.

But Rasmussen isn’t going to pencil in anything yet.

“I don’t really think that way. I always think I have to play as good as possible to earn a spot, and that’s what I think this year, too,” said Rasmussen on Day 3 of Blackhawks training camp. “But it’s really up to me. I have to play well to earn my spot here. That’s what I’m trying to focus on.”

After trading Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell this offseason, the Blackhawks will be looking for several players to step up and fill voids. Center is one of those spots, and Rasmussen played 44 games there with the Blackhawks last season. Rasmussen spent the long offseason prepping for this campaign, focusing on one thing in particular.

“I always try to work on getting faster, that’s the part of my game I can really improve,” he said. “I can improve everything. But especially getting quicker, that’s what I’m trying to focus.”

Anything else Rasmussen has to do to take that next step?

“I think he’s got to be a little more proactive than reactive out on the ice,” Blackhawks assistant coach Mike Kitchen said. “Kind of be a little bolder in different areas whether it’s in the offensive zone if you’re down between the hash marks, hey, try and take a guy on 1-on-1. But if you’re a neutral zone, you got to be a little more responsible. If you got to pick up the wide winger and come back and play good defensive hockey, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

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Rasmussen showed that when he made his NHL debut last season. The Blackhawks recalled him in early December, when they were looking to bolster their bottom six; any offense added was a bonus. He scored three of his four goals in his first seven games – his first came in his NHL debut vs. Nashville.

“He can make more things happen out there,” Kitchen said. “I think he understands that too because he wants to do whatever it takes to make the team.”

Rasmussen wants to be part of this group. He gained some great experience last year, and he hopes it serves him well in trying to get that roster spot this season.

“It was great for me. I got to play a lot, think I played in some important situations sometimes and I was really happy with last year. It gave me a lot of confidence, a lot of experience too,” Rasmussen said. “So hopefully I can bring that into this year.”

Let's speculate: Could Les Miles come back to the Big Ten?

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Let's speculate: Could Les Miles come back to the Big Ten?

Les Miles was fired Sunday after 12 seasons as the head coach at LSU.

Miles has an awesome resume: a 114-34 record with 62 SEC wins, plus a national championship in 2007 and another trip to the national title game in 2011. Seven of his 12 seasons ended with double-digit wins, and two of them ended in SEC championships.

So he's sure to be a hot commodity when teams look to fill not-yet-existent head-coaching vacancies this offseason.

As far as we're concerned here in Big Ten Country, though, will a Big Ten program be able to land the Mad Hatter as a high-profile splash?

Miles is a Big Ten product, remember. An Ohio native, he played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan and later coached under Schembechler and Gary Moeller as a Michigan assistant from 1987 to 1994. He has familiarity with the conference and the recruiting grounds.

It's all pure speculation right now, as it's quite possible there will be no openings in the conference when the regular season wraps in late November. But if we were to project which Big Ten programs might be looking for new coaches this offseason, could we find a spot for Miles?

The obvious team that might be parting ways with its current head coach is Purdue. Darrell Hazell has had almost no success running the Boilermakers, currently with a 8-31 record in three-plus seasons and a grotesque 2-22 mark in Big Ten play. That's usually enough for a tenure to come to an end, but is it too much losing to keep Purdue from being an attractive choice for the free agent Miles? Certainly we've seen high-profile coaches take jobs at less-than-power programs before, particularly after wearing out their welcome at their previous spot of employment. Lovie Smith just surprised by taking a job at Illinois after a long career as an NFL head coach. Perhaps Purdue can use similar tactics — new athletics director Mike Bobinski just started his tenure and would surely like to make a splash — and of course there's all that Big Ten TV money that should make competitive pay no problem at all.

But there will more than likely be other suitors from bigger programs and ones with more storied traditions. Could one of them be Penn State? James Franklin is only in Year 3 in Happy Valley, but the Valley isn't so happy at the moment, with the Nittany Lions getting crushed by Michigan on Saturday to show just how big the gap currently is between the top of the Big Ten East Division and Penn State. Bill O'Brien worked wonders in the immediate years after the Jerry Sandusky scandal had such a big effect on the program, but Franklin's continued reclamation effort isn't going too swimmingly in that ultra-competitive division with 7-6 records in each of his first two campaigns. There's certainly a case to be made for giving Franklin more time, but college football fans (and athletics departments) aren't famous for their patience. The tradition and profile of Penn State would have to be attractive to Miles, who dealt with a high-profile environment at LSU, and if the university is real serious about getting the Lions back to the top of college football's heap, bringing in Miles — and his track record of recruiting success — would do it, at the very least from a public-relations standpoint.

And then there's the obligatory mention of Michigan. Michigan? Jim Harbaugh is just in the second year of his tenure and seemingly has a lifelong title set up as the King of Ann Arbor. But should Harbaugh, who's had great success turning the Wolverines around in lightning-quick fashion, head back to the NFL, that would create an opening. Who better to fill that hypothetical vacancy than another Michigan Man in Miles? Miles has had his name linked to Michigan before, of course, with the obvious connection sparking speculation when the Wolverines needed to find replacements for Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. There's no indication Harbaugh's going anywhere, of course — we're in speculation land, remember? — but because it's Miles, the possibility has to be at least addressed.

It's all a guessing game at this point, and there are sure to be other high-profile openings around college football that will become speculative destinations for Miles, not to mention other job titles that aren't "head coach." But it'd be something to see him join the Big Ten's already-loaded roster of head coaches.