The West Chester Rustin hockey team didn’t visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during its trip to Cleveland last week, but it did come home with a record and a little bit of history.
The Golden Knights competed in the USA Hockey National High School championships, along with Downingtown East. After a three-game round-robin and a quarterfinal and a semifinal, Rustin played Santa Margarita of California in the final. They met each other in the first game of the tournament, with the bigger team from the west coast pulling out a 3-0 victory.
“My first impression of them was that they were a big, well-coached, very talented team,” said Rustin coach Nick Russo.
But, the final was a different story, Bryan Widdis scored in the third period to break a tie and give the Golden Knights a 4-3 win and the national title.
“Very seldom do you get a chance to win at national championship,” Russo added. “It’s been quite a ride.”
After losing to Santa Margarita, which finished second in this tournament in 2015, Rustin collected victories over Pittsburgh Central Catholic and Medina of Ohio to advance out of pool play with a 2-1 record.
The Golden Knights defeated Southlake Carroll of Texas in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, you can excuse Rustin for having a moment out of the movie Casablanca and thinking, “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world.”
Standing between Rustin and a place in the championship game was none other than Downingtown East.
“It was crazy that we have to travel 365 miles to play another team from the Ches-Mont,” said Russo. “We love those guys. Dave Hendricks and his staff do a great job. We’re like a family.
“To tell you the truth, I was a little nervous playing them.”
Rustin dominated the Cougars, cruising to a 4-0 victory, and earned a spot in the championship game.
Heading into the final, Russo went way back to give inspiration for his squad.
“I told them the night before that we were David and they were Goliath,” he said. “I told Bryan that he would be about the size of David and he scored the winning goal. It was cool.”
And when the final buzzer sounded, and the celebration began, Russo’s first thought was more introspective.
“My first thought was about my dad, who died a year ago, and I thanked him for putting me on the ice,” Russo said. “Then, I was thinking, ‘We’re No. 1 in the country.’”
The win capped a magical year for Rustin, which captured its fourth straight Flyers Cup crown and a fourth state championship in a row before heading to Cleveland.
One impressive thing about the tournament was that it was truly national in scope. The National Hockey League may be struggling in the Sun Belt states, but on the youth level, the game has taken hold.
“What impressed me were how good they were,” Russo said. “We were playing teams that wouldn’t have existed 20 years ago. That speaks to the job that USA Hockey have done and the impact the NHL had in expanding south.
“Some of the teams that we were playing were the size of North Penn,” Russo added. “I felt like we were Hickory in the movie Hoosiers.”
Of course, that ended with a win for the little guys as well.
Now the tournament is over, the recognition for the team will begin. They will be recognized by the Flyers, before being honored by the state government in Harrisburg.
“I can’t thank the school enough and the families for the support,” Russo said.