While Juan Diego Catholic High School’s colors weren’t anywhere on the ice at the Utah High School Hockey state championship on Feb. 21 at the Salt Lake Sports Complex, Soaring Eagle players were in the heart of the action.
Under the colors of the Oquirrh Mountaineers, nine Juan Diego players helped the team defeat Southern Utah 10-1 in the final game. Soaring Eagle players Christopher Panek and Ian Murray each contributed three goals to the final score.
Murray led the state in varsity goals scored in both divisions.
The Mountaineers had beaten Southern Utah 9-1 in the last regular season game and again 5-1 in the first-round state playoffs. Coach Moe Van der Sluys said that was ironic because in the third game of the year Southern Utah beat the Mountaineers 6-1.
The Mountaineers started the season slowly, initially losing a few games, but went on a “full winning streak” beginning in October, Van der Sluys said. In the end, the team was the #1 seed and swept the playoffs, winning every game.
This is the second year Juan Diego has played as part of the Oquirrh Mountaineers. The school has been unable to field a full team since 2013, although it did have a team in previous years. For schools in that situation the league organizes an independent team that draws from several schools.
With a roster of 24 players, Oquirrh Mountaineers team members come from nine high schools: Cyprus, Hunter, Granger, Taylorsville, West Jordan, Roots, East Hollywood, Juan Diego and Providence, with most schools providing just one to two players.
This year, Juan Diego seniors Jeffrey Kain, Christopher Panek and Jackson Byee; juniors Jackson Strelow and Piper van der Sluys; sophomores Ian Murray and Jackson Gordon; and freshmen Kenyon Johnson and Giovanni Mammano made up a solid core of the team.
Van der Sluys, who had coached high school hockey for 11 years, agreed to coach the team “to keep these players together, to keep them skating, with the hope to be able to re-form as the Juan Diego team,” he said.
The remainder of the coaching team also has Juan Diego ties: Mike Dykman is the father of former team member Mikayla Dykman, and Kory Palmer is a former team member.
“The nice thing is the coaches all have the Juan Diego mentality: holding the players to a higher standard, with the student first and athlete second,” Van der Sluys said. “It has worked out very well with this team.”
Along with instilling those standards in team members, the coaching staff has worked hard to try and keep the Juan Diego identity alive, even purchasing Juan Diego jerseys and jackets for the players to wear to school, he said.
While Van der Sluys is delighted the Mountaineers took the state championship, he hopes it’s not too long before Juan Diego players will be able to do so under their own name and their own colors.
“Players are now coming out of the woodwork,” said the coach, who is hopeful Juan Diego can get its own team again; 14 players are required by the league.
Hockey is an expensive sport and that could be keeping away students who might otherwise be interested in playing he said, but he added that the team does a lot of fundraising, which can bring those costs down.
He encourages students who have an interest in playing to contact him. While those who have ice skated in the past are good candidates, lacrosse players and other athletes have successfully made the transition, he said.
At the state playoff games, the players were surprised at the number of fans in the stands, most of whom were Juan Diego students. In the past, the stands have been largely empty, Van der Sluys said.
“We have very few fans go to hockey games,” Van der Sluys said. “Once we reached the playoffs, we had some pretty good crowds.”