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Watt’s performance in net, timely scoring lead NTG to third title in four years

The puck was fought for in the left circle, with little chance to reach the net. A raucous student section at the United Center began to count down. Gloves flew into the air, and a dog pile at the net ensued.

New Trier Green (finishing with a record of 64-4-1) was back on top of the IHSA hockey world, sealing a 2-0 victory over Loyola Gold on Friday, March 22 to win their third state title in the last four seasons.

The Trevians’ victory this season was particularly sweet, as it came on the heels of last year’s quarterfinal loss to Glenbrook South. Per Pioneer Press, head coach Bob Melton called the defeat in 2018 “unacceptable,” as it was his earliest exit from the playoffs in his 21 seasons coaching New Trier.

“Last year, everyone knew we didn’t meet expectations for New Trier Green, and that was one of the biggest motivators for our team this year,” said senior forward Bobby Soudan, who led the 2019 Trevians with 82 points.

“The returning players had to experience the pain of ending a season short of the goal, and we knew we weren’t going to accept anything less than a championship.”

Soudan did his part to ensure New Trier’s victory, scoring the second goal on a five-on-three power play late in the second period. He received the puck down low on the attacking Trevians’ right side, circled behind the faceoff dot, and snapped a quick shot past waiting defenseman Nick Liebers and just over the glove of Loyola goaltender Matt Choate to extend NTG’s lead.

“The five-on-three wasn’t really a set play,” Soudan explained. “We just got into the formation we normally did and moved the puck until something opened up.”

New Trier’s stars shined bright on Friday Night – both Soudan and senior forward Mark Ashmore, who finished his team-leading 44 goal season with a redirect in front that became the game-winner.

It was made possible by an excellent keep-in by junior defenseman John Kane, who batted down a clear attempt from Loyola with his glove. He settled the puck down, skated past Loyola forward Jacob Gonzalez, and fired a blast towards the net, where Ashmore stood unchecked.

He changed the shot’s direction, tipping the puck from what would have been a routine save with the midsection by Choate to the inside edge of the glove-side post, where it hit and deflected into the net.

The game was kept scoreless early by two aspects, the first of which was a tight-checking mentality from both squads, coming to a fever pitch when senior Gavin Randle collided with Loyola forward Aidan Finnegan on an incoming rush late in the first period.

Randle’s hip check sent Finnegan flying, and it set the tone for a physical contest.

Second, both goaltenders – Choate and New Trier’s Preston Watt – played particularly well.

Watt, a sophomore, stopped multiple point-blank chances early in the game to prevent Loyola from claiming an early lead. He figures to man the crease for NTG for the next two years after a stellar 2018-19 performance. Watt split time with senior Owen Reger throughout the year, but he eventually claimed the starting job with an astounding 36-2 record.

He stopped 91.7 percent of the shots he faced and allowed a miniscule 1.52 goals a game.

While much of New Trier’s motivation came from last season’s disappointment, they drew strength from rallying together after the sudden and tragic passing of assistant coach Alex Pegler in October.

During the celebration, they held up his jersey from his time as a New Trier Hockey player, giving it more reverence than they gave the trophy.

“Our team has thrived off our physical play all season, which we can attribute to the motivation that our late coach Alex Pegler inspired,” explained Soudan. “They could’ve had Corey Crawford in net and it wouldn’t have made a difference.”