GAYLORD, MI- They say all good things have to come to an end. But after a historic rally in the regional final against Marquette, the ending to this journey seemingly had one destination. USA Arena in Plymouth. Alpena came into the state quarterfinal confident and riding high after their third straight regional title. With a crowd that was close to 90% from Alpena, everything seemed to be favoring the Wildcats. However, Saginaw Heritage had different plans as they controlled the game throughout and came away with a 4-1 victory.
Was it an emotional hangover from Wednesday? Was it over confidence? Or did Alpena simply get outplayed. I lean towards to latter. Heritage came out ready to go, had more energy and just took it to the Wildcats in this one. They outshot Alpena 39-32, dominated in terms of scoring chances, and when needed goalie Nolan Gotham was up to the task.
Two Alpena power plays came and went in the first. Soon after Brady Gotham capitalized on an odd man rush to give Heritage a 1-0 lead. Alpena was flat in the first, there were multiple defensive breakdowns and Aidan Schultz turned away point blank chances to keep the score where it was. Alpena has not been a great first period team, after 17 minutes no one was concerned. But when the second period started and the momentum did not change, the energy in the arena seemed to drop.
Cole Winters would give Heritage a 2-0 lead in the second. After a shot hit the crossbar, the senior scored on a backhand shot to double the lead. For the second straight game Alpena found themselves down two goals. The Wildcats had several chances late in the period, but Gotham denied both Ian Lightfoot and Anden Marceau on golden opportunities and after 34 minutes it was 2-0.
An early power play looked like it was going to get Alpena on the board, Reid Meinhardt navigated through the Hawks defense and fed to a wide open Cam Young. Young who scored five goals in the regional just could not get the puck on his stick. It was a play that summed up the Wildcats afternoon. As the power play ended, Owen Turner beat Schultz and Heritage had a 3-0 lead.
The Wildcats showed a sign of life as Meinhardt found Lightfoot in front with 6:45 to go to get Alpena on the board. The Wildcats however just could not muster the chances needed to pull off a second straight rally. An empty netter gave Heritage a 4-1 win and moves them to the state semi final.
2023-23 was a banner year for the Wildcats. They captured their third straight regional title. They broke the school record for wins in a year (24). They defeated two top 5 opponents during the season. They were filling the stands with 2,500 people by the end of it. The Alpena contingent in Gaylord basically turned this one into a home game.
While the loss will sting, there will be nothing but positive memories from this season. Props to Head Coach Ben Henry, along with assistant coaches Cam Givens, Dave Meinhardt and Mike Thompson for developing this group into a state power this season. Props to the 21 young men who did far more than win hockey games. They were a model group for the community and gave the town something to root for and remember.