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Holy Cross comeback claims city championship

You could tell it was going to end this way.

One week after overcoming a third-period deficit in what would have been the last game of its postseason, Holy Cross hockey relied on another furious, late-game run to write a storybook finish to its 2009 city championship season.

In Game Two of the best-of-three ‘B’ championship series on March 13 – a Friday, supporters of Manhattan’s Xavier might point out – Holy Cross entered the third period with a 4-1 deficit. However, two goals by Anthony Yacovone and one by John Pagano tied the score, setting up Yacovone’s winner in the early seconds of overtime.

“They’re late bloomers,” said head coach Kevin Goodspeed, stating the obvious.

In the semifinals back on March 4, they were down 2-1 with 10 minutes left against rival St. Francis Prep, with the Terriers one win away from taking the series. Then Michael Donoto put in a wrister and Pagano followed with another with 1:44 left. Three nights later, the Knights claimed a somewhat easier Game Three.

In the finals on Friday, with the Knights having already won Game One, the only factors at stake were momentum and the prospect of a decisive Game Three on Saturday. However, they wanted to win Friday. Even down by three, Goodspeed told them it was possible.

“I told the kids coming out of the locker room, ‘Next goal wins this game,’” he said. “If they would have [gone] up 5-1, it would have been tough to come back.”

“We’ve been there before,” said Pagano, who has now played his last high school hockey game. “We knew we could come back.”

The Knights looked charged up as they stepped onto the ice for the third period, and it did not take long for them to score first. Thirty-one seconds into the segment, Yacovone slid in a point-blank shot. Four minutes later, he shoveled in a rebound off a shot from Pagano. With 2:22 left in the contest and the Knights’ rally appearing to be over, Pagano put in a game-tying garbage goal.

Garbage goals, of course, count just like the others. They were a friend to Xavier in the first period, with Holy Cross goaltender Anthony Sibilio victimized by a few of them. They also tend to represent the well-deserved spoils of speed and smart positioning — two traits that Holy Cross showed off in the third period. When Yacovone completed his hat trick 41 seconds into overtime, he was into the boards and surrounded by gleeful teammates faster than one could utter “Most Valuable Player.” (He scored four goals in Game One.)

“It was like slow-motion. It was great,” Pagano said. “I knew if he had room he’d put it in, because he’s a good player.”

“Comeback, third period, overtime, championship,” Yacovone thought aloud. “I can’t explain it. I was thrilled that we came back from 4-1 and won in overtime.”

Few would argue that the Knights have made the comeback their calling card, and their third-period performance surely makes Goodspeed seem like a genius of second-intermission inspirational speeches. However, the head coach credits the general atmosphere in the locker room for keeping his players loose at difficult moments.

“You can’t rattle this team up,” Goodspeed said. “They’re just a loose team. They could be down five goals and still joking around on the bench, still talking about baseball. It’s a funny bench.”

Once the mob around Yacovone cleared from the corner of the ice, the Knights congregated at center ice and took turns showing off their new trophy to crowd. In the locker room afterward, they said a prayer for program founder and former head coach Mike Mitchell, the 58-year-old league commissioner who died on February 28 after sustaining liver and kidney damage following a December 22 car accident. Players had been notified of Mitchell’s passing just before the first game of the Knights’ semifinal series.

“He was looking down on us, no doubt about it,” Goodspeed said. “He has a funny way of working.”

“It was great, especially for Mitchell,” Pagano said. “I’m sure he would have loved it.”

Holy Cross’ ‘B’ division title comes two years after a demotion to the ‘C’ division, and one season after destroying every ‘C’ opponent in the team’s wake. The 2008-09 campaign marked the Knights’ return to familiar pastures, and their near-undefeated performance this season – St. Francis Prep finally beat them in their penultimate regular-season game – raises the possibility of a promotion to the ‘A’ division.

“It’s a new challenge for us,” said Goodspeed. Despite the phrasing, he indicated that nothing had been decided, and he sounded supportive of the idea.

Holy Cross would be the only team from Queens in the league’s top flight.

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