By Dan Makarewicz
Dropping the opener in the best-of-three Mississippi Valley Conference Hockey Association 1A championship series did not deflate Highland senior forward Jacob Noll inside the post-game dressing room on Feb. 24.
“I kept telling everyone, ‘We’ve got this,’” Noll said.
His words proved prophetic.
Facing two elimination games on back-to-back nights, the Bulldogs simply stood tall. A pair of 2-1 victories – with the finale on March 1 – over Alton capped the comeback and gave Highland its first MVCHA 1A title since 2018.
The victory ultimately led to a raucous celebration at the McKendree Metro Rec Plex, proving Noll’s edict that the Bulldogs become champions.
“It was definitely sad, but we knew we wouldn’t back down,” Noll said about the Bulldogs’ mood after their 2-1 Game 1 loss to Alton. “I told everybody that we weren’t losing. We were not going to leave the (series) without a cup.”
Considering how the Bulldogs lost the opener, it was a bold statement. Highland held a 1-0 third-period lead (junior Dominick Emig scored its goal) before surrendering a goal with 40 seconds left.
Alton ultimately won in a shootout.
When practice resumed on Feb. 25, the Bulldogs altered their lineup and elected to shorten their shifts. A fresh approach, in their eyes, would net the comeback.
Dylan Kreke helped make that happen, giving Highland a 1-0 advantage in Game 2. The Redbirds, though, eventually netted the equalizing goal before Kreke scored again. Freshman goalie Mason Haselhorst preserved the 2-1 victory.
That set up the winner-take-all third game.
Tyler Griesbaum opened the scoring with a second-period goal, then Kreke doubled it in the third. Alton did slice the deficit in half, but the Bulldogs never wavered in the last five minutes.
“We talked (about) how the game was going to fly by, but the last five minutes were going to be the slowest five minutes ever,” Highland junior forward/defender Landon Gunter said. “It really didn’t feel like that. I came back to the bench with 1:36 left and I was like, ‘That did not crawl.’ It was the fastest five minutes of my life.”
When the buzzer sounded, the celebration began.
“I’ve been looking forward to that,” Noll said, “for a long time.”
His words helped make it happen.