JSerra Tournament highlights So Cal hockey

For two teams separated by several hundred miles and part of unconnected CIF sections,  Santa Margarita Catholic and San Jose’s Bellarmine Prep have built up a hotly contested north-south rivalry.

When Bellarmine traveled down to Anaheim last March for the CAHA High School state hockey playoffs, they were greeted prior to the championship game at the Honda Center by nearly the entire Santa Margarita football team holding up newspaper headlines depicting the Eagles’ 42-37 victory over the Bells in the CIF State Championship Division I bowl game while providing a raucous home environment in a game Santa Margarita ultimately won, 4-1.

“It’s developing into a really good rivalry,” said Ray Kellam, the head coach of Bellarmine’s growing hockey program. “I love it. It’s great. It’s hockey.”

The rivalry was rekindled – and again won by Santa Margarita – in the semi-finals of the third annual JSerra Catholic High School Thanksgiving Invitational Hockey Tournament, which concluded Saturday afternoon at Anaheim ICE when the Eagles fell, 2-0, to Winnipeg’s John Taylor Collegiate in the championship game.

Mike Perkins, the tournament’s director and head coach of San Juan Capistrano – JSerra Catholic’s varsity team, indicated that Bellarmine wasn’t the only school to see the high bar set by Santa Margarita’s hockey program as a catalyst towards a projected goal – and as the fuel of a rivalry that stretches across all sports between the two southern Orange County powers.

“No doubt, Santa Margarita is a big rival for us,” he said. “I hope they feel the same about us.

“As far as the games go, they’re very heated. A lot of the kids have played on teams together over the years. They know each other. It’s no different from Catholic schools in Detroit or in Boston, and places like that where kids grow up playing with each other, against each other, and then they go to separate schools and it happens to each other in high school.”

Detroit. Boston. Mission Viejo.

The players certainly become accustomed to each other. JSerra upset an undefeated Santa Margarita team in the championship game of the 2011-12 season of the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, which expanded to 14 teams for the 2012-13 season and allows players to wear their high school colors and insignias in addition to maintaining their AA and AAA club team eligibility. Santa Margarita and JSerra are the only schools in the league icing both varsity and junior varsity teams.

They’re also traveling semi-regularly to San Jose to face Bellarmine and several of the other top Bay Area-based high school teams, though the volume of participation amongst players and schools in Orange County currently surpasses the grassroots efforts in Northern California.

“There’s no comparison. Southern California has the edge,” said Kellam.

“I see a lot of parity between all the SoCal teams. Up north, I would say that we’re the only show in town, and there’s not a lot of competition for us in the Bay Area. It’s just starting to get going. We’re a little bit behind, and Bellarmine is trying to lead the way to sort of pave the SoCal model.”

That SoCal model impressed John Taylor head coach Gavin McLachlan, who entered the tournament not exactly knowing what to expect in the level of competition or interest, and came away impressed by both.

“The Santa Margarita team, if you bring them back to Winnipeg and put them in our high school hockey league, they’re going to be in the top half of our best division,” said the coach of the fifth-place team of the 11-team Winnipeg High School Hockey League.

Many players who have played for John Taylor have gone on to play in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and for Canadian colleges. After tying Santa Margarita in pool play, John Taylor beat the Eagles in the championship, a game that was either tied or a one-goal game for 56 and a half minutes.

“That game is the reason that the boys play high school hockey,” McLachlan said. “It was exciting. It was a fast paced, hard hitting game. Both national anthems were played. The boys felt like they were playing for their country. The fans were into the game, yelling, screaming, cheering. It was just an awesome environment, and at the end of the game, the fans gave us a standing ovation. The boys loved it. It was a great hockey game, one of the best games I’ve been a part of in my 10-year coaching career.”

It also provided the John Taylor players a chance to revisit their own hockey history. All teams played one game on the Honda Center ice, and the John Taylor kids used the bench behind which Winnipeg Jets veteran Randy Carlyle coached the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup. They played in front of local legend Teemu Selanne, who was on hand to watch his two of his sons play for Santa Margarita. Scott Niedermayer, a Cranbrook, BC native and a major inspiration for many young Western Canadian defensemen, was on hand, as was Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau.

Not that the Manitobans were in awe of their surroundings. This was a business trip, and they came, they saw and they conquered. Interspersed around jumping in the Pacific Ocean and taking in Downtown Disney and the Huntington Pier, they won the tournament and provided an excellent measuring stick for the region’s top high school hockey programs, especially for a Santa Margarita team that advanced past pool play at the 2012 National High School Championships.

“I would say it’s almost more of a harder hitting game down here,” McLachlan said. “There are some physical teams up in Winnipeg, but it was put-your-nose-to-the-grindstone. It was a workman’s kind of win. You had to be able to hit it, battle, and stuff like that. It was a great time and great hockey.”