Like a center fielder patrolling the outfield, Verona junior Leo Renlund caught an airborne puck from Notre Dame de la Baie goaltender Bo Buckley.
Renlund dropped the puck and fired a shot just under Buckley’s legs 6:17 into overtime to give the Wildcats a thrilling 2-1 win over the top-seeded Tritons in the Division 1 state championship on Saturday, March 7, at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Third-seeded Verona advanced to the title game with 1-0 double-overtime victory over second-seeded Chippewa Falls a day earlier in the state semifinals.
Verona 2, Notre Dame 1, OT
Renlund ripped off his helmv et and tossed it in the air as the celebration began for the Wildcats (25-4), who won their second state title in program history and first since 2014.
“It’s one of the best feelings in the world,” Renlund said. “It’s my biggest goal for sure. I know there was a little bit of luck involved. But I can definitely chalk it up to all of the hours in the basement and all the hours of practice, just knowing where I should be.”
Verona coach Joel Marshall wanted the team to celebrate the title like a fine dinner club party after appearing in the state tournament for the third year in a row.
“Going to that fine restaurant and getting that meal you like so much, you always want to go back,” Marshall said. “You always want to go back, but it’s hard to get a reservation.”
The Wildcats won the rubber match against Notre Dame by killing two penalties in the second period and one early in the third.
Instant replay also played a pivotal role in the final. Verona junior forward Walker Haessig had two goals wiped out because of goalie interference, the second call coming with 3:01 left in the third period that could have won the game in regulation.
“Both of them were hard to get through my head that they actually called them off,” Haessig said. “We just had to keep going and get pucks on the net.”
“It’s definitely heartbreaking to have a goal taken away,” Renlund added. “We knew if we kept our heads on straight, we could win. Five-on-five, we knew we were better than them.”
Cale Rufenacht tied the game at 1 with 13:59 left in the third period. Haessig took the puck from behind the goal line, circled past the crease and dished a pass to the senior captain, who crashed the net on the weak side for his 29th goal of the season.
“Walker made the play,” Rufenacht said. “We were on the offense the rest of the game and they were on their heels.”
Notre Dame (25-2-1) scored its only goal with 9:18 left in the first period. Junior Brendan Poshak ripped a wrister from the right wing past Verona junior goaltender Kaden Grant.
The Tritons outshot the Wildcats 31-20 and had golden opportunities on back-to-back power plays midway through the second period. Grant stopped several shots to keep Verona within striking distance.
Grant made 14 of his 30 saves in the second period.
“We have so much trust in Kaden,” Rufenacht said. “We just had to block shots, and we knew we would kill it off and eventually go down and get one. We just had to weather the storm.”
Verona 1, Chippewa Falls 0, 2OT
Grant and Cardinals sophomore Bridger Fixmer stood on their heads throughout the state semifinal.
Ultimately, the Wildcats’ potent offense broke through, as Haessig knocked in a rebound at the 3:21 mark of the second overtime.
“That was one of the most exciting hockey games I’ve ever been a part of, especially here at the Coliseum,” Marshall said. “I’m so proud of the way we battled through adversity.”
Haessig netted the game winner amid a massive scrum in the crease. Rufenacht had his shot partially blocked, but Haessig knocked the puck out of midair and into the back of the net to send the Wildcats to the state championship.
“I thought Cale was going to finish it, but the puck popped out to me,” Haessig said. “The goalie made a stick save on the first try, but I batted it in. I couldn’t believe it went in.”
Rufenacht and junior defenseman Josh Osting assisted on Haessig’s 18th goal of the season.
“If it was a different goalie like most we’ve seen this year, we probably would’ve scored three, four or five goals,” Marshall said. “The way both goalies played, you knew the game winner was going to be an ugly goal.”
Grant stayed cool under pressure throughout, especially in the first overtime. He made 31 saves for his 10th shutout of the season, and the Wildcats killed two penalties in the fourth period.
“I was dead tired after those two penalty kills,” Grant said. “We just had to keep pushing. My defense blocked everything when I couldn’t see.”
His counterpart Fixmer finished with 37 saves.
Verona dominated most of the second period, but couldn’t break through despite two power plays.
Fixmer made a sprawling save of senior forward Parker Ploc and denied Rufenacht in the Wildcats’ second power play of the game. Cardinals sophomore defenseman Carsten Reeg was hit with a delay of game penalty after covering the puck without a stick, but the Wildcats did not generate a shot on their third power play.
Both teams had a scoring chance in the final two minutes of regulation. Chippewa Falls (23-5) could not convert a 2-on-1 chance, and Ploc hit the side of the net with five seconds left.