By Brian Lester
The Idaho Jr. Steelheads found themselves in a familiar position at the end of the Western States Hockey League season.
They are Thorne Cup champions once again, winning the crown for the fifth time in franchise history in April with a three-game sweep of the Colorado Jr. Eagles in the championship series.
All three games were close, with Idaho winning the opening two games by a 3-2 count. Idaho sealed the deal on the title with a 5-4 win.
“It’s a lot of fun winning it again and it feels great,” said assistant head coach Jason Smith. “There were some people who probably didn’t think we were the favorite but our guys stepped up and played very well. We gave a tremendous effort in all three games and were able to beat a very good team.”
Kyle Williams played a pivotal role in the team’s success, particularly in the postseason, and Smith said his effort motivated everyone else. He scored seven goals and dished out four assists in the postseason. He scored 35 goals in the regular season and dished out 36 assists as well.
Williams was flat out phenomenal in the series-clinching game. He scored three times and dished out an assist on another goal as he helped the Steelheads take down the Eagles. Jackson York and Hunter Lester also scored goals for the Steelheads in the final game.
“When you see your captain working hard and sacrificing his body to make plays, everyone else is going to follow his lead,” Smith said. “Our team had a great work ethic and that helped carry us to a championship.”
Nothing was guaranteed for the Steelheads going into the playoffs even if they did have a tradition of success. And nothing came easy in a league that is among the best in the country.
“Missoula had beaten us three times during the season and Colorado beat us at the showcase,” Smith said. “Colorado came into that series on a roll and played very well. It was tough all the way through and for us to find a way to come out on top is a big accomplishment. It says a lot about our team.”
There was a point earlier in the year when Idaho struggled to keep momentum, especially when it lost three in a row to Missoula in November.
“There was a stretch where things looked pretty rough,” Smith said. “But we stuck together and we found a way to keep pushing through and win games.
“We had a lot of new guys step up and our veterans did a great job as well. The guys believed in the system and bought into what we were teaching them. We really played well down the stretch and it carried into the playoffs.”
Idaho is a team that always has high expectations, after winning five of the last six championships, but Smith said the players did a good job of handling it and understood what it took to be a championship team.
“The people around the program have high expectations and coach [John] Olver knows how to lead a winning team. He did a great job with the players and always brings out the best in them. The players knew what was expected of them and worked hard to win a title.”
Idaho is expected to lose the majority of its team, but the franchise always seems to rebuild instead of reload. That isn’t expected to change this year.
“We’re already at it with recruiting because we know we have a lot of holes to fill for next year,” Smith said. “Our team is going to have a different look next year but we expect to be in that mix for a championship again.”
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