Verona senior forward Cale Rufenacht has had the opportunity to skate for a Division 1 state tournament berth in each year of his prep career.
Rufenacht netted a hat trick to make sure he and his teammates will compete at state for the third consecutive season, as the Wildcats beat sectional host Edgewood 5-2 in the sectional championship Saturday, Feb. 29, at Madison Ice Arena.
“Anything less is unacceptable,” Verona coach Joel Marshall said of qualifying for state. “It’s an expectation because of the talent of some of these guys. They put in the work to get here. They are having the time of their life right now.”
Verona (23-4), the top seed in the Edgewood Sectional, sailed past Sauk Prairie 6-3 in the sectional semifinals Tuesday, Feb. 25, at Verona Ice Arena.
Verona 5, Edgewood 2
The Wildcats broke a 2-2 tie after two periods with three goals in the third period.
“We have worked all season with the conditioning so in third periods, we can come out with speed,” Rufenacht said. “We have three lines that can roll and we were comfortable with them against anyone else’s line. Eventually we wore them down and were rewarded.”
Rufenacht took a pass from junior defenseman Nathan Jurrens and scored the go-ahead goal 14 seconds into the third period. Junior forward also assisted on the goal.
Rufenacht completed his hat trick 49 seconds later off an assist from Haessig. Jurrens capped the scoring with a power-play goal off an assist from junior forward Leo Renlund with 11:04 left.
“We took the wind out of their sails,” Marshall said. “When we got that third goal, our energy on the bench was through the roof. That will deflate any team.”
Early on, the game had the makings of one that might go down to the wire.
Edgewood (22-5) struck first just 3:11 into the game, as sophomore forward Cody Menzel blasted a shot past Verona junior goaltender Kaden Grant, off the far post and in.
Crusaders senior goaltender Zach Walker stopped a shot from Renlund, but Rufenacht cleaned up the rebound to tie it at 1 with 7:02 left in the first.
Edgewood sophomore forward Aidan Lenz scored on the power play to give the Crusaders a 2-1 lead just 2:47 into the second period. The Crusaders outshot the Wildcats 17-11 in the second.
“It was rough getting all of those shots and making saves on my butt,” said Grant, who finished with 36 saves.
“He’s one of the state’s best and we have all the confidence in the world in him,” Marshall said of Grant.
Haessig skated to the right wing and scored on a shot just inside the far post with 7:56 left in the second. Rufenacht and junior defenseman Josh Osting assisted on the goal.
Verona outshot Edgewood 43-38, went 2-for-7 on the power play and killed four of five penalties.
Verona 6, Sauk Prairie 3
Haessig wasted no time getting the Wildcats on the board against the Eagles, as he tracked down a long pass by Osting and scored 20 seconds into the game.
Sauk Prairie (21-5-1) tied it at the 5:05 mark of the first thanks to a fortuitous deflection. Camden Desroches sent a slap shot off teammate Nick Mast’s skate and past Grant.
Verona jumped ahead for good 46 seconds later, as senior forward Ryan Ritter knocked home a rebound with assists from fellow senior forwards Parker Ploc and Drew Yeager. Rufenacht scored 54 seconds after Ritter’s first tally to make it 3-1.
Ritter netted his second goal off an assist from senior defenseman Keegan Lindell at the 8:54 mark of the first. Mast scored again on a wraparound with 2:27 left in the first to cut the Eagles’ deficit to 4-2.
Rufenacht scored his second goal short-handed off assists from Haessig and Jurrens with 1:07 left in the second period.
Sauk Prairie’s Riley Jelinek scored on the power play 31 seconds into the third period off an assist from Luke Mast, but Rufenacht completed his hat trick with an empty-netter 12 seconds before the final horn.
Both teams finished with 39 shots. The Wildcats were 0-for-1 on the power play and the Eagles were 1-for-2. Grant made 36 saves in the win.
Sauk Prairie’s Jordan O’Connor made 11 saves before being pulled after Ritter’s second goal. Kaden Stracke stopped 22 of the 23 shots he faced in relief.
Verona received the 3 seed and will face second-seeded Chippewa Falls in the second state semifinal at about 12:15 p.m. on Friday, March 6, at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Madison.
Top-seeded Notre Dame de la Baie will face fourth-seeded Milwaukee University in the first semifinal at 10 a.m.
The Wildcats are looking to break through to the state championship after losing in the state semifinals the last two seasons.
“They believe they can beat anyone in the state and we have had the chance to beat every team we have seen,” Marshall said. “They have some unsettled business to take care of going into the weekend.”
Verona split its two games against Notre Dame this season, winning 3-1 at the Showdown in Titletown on Dec. 28, and falling 3-2 at the Wausau West Tournament on Jan. 18.
The Wildcats lost 2-1 on the road against Milwaukee University on Nov. 30.
“We expect to win,” Rufenacht said. “There is no reason we can’t go out there and win a state tournament.”
Big Eight All-Conference Team
Rufenacht (20 goals, 28 assists) and Sun Prairie senior forward Kaden Brunson (27 goals, 36 assists) were named co-players of the year in the Big Eight Conference.
Haessig (14 goals, 23 assists), Jurrens (13 goals, 18 assists) and Grant (.936 save percentage) joined Rufenacht on the first team.
Osting (six goals, 21 assists) was selected to the second team.
Renlund (10 goals, 25 assists) and Lindell (seven goals, nine assists) received honorable mention notice.
Marshall was named the conference’s coach of the year.