Benedictine vs. Mentor hockey: Bengals repeat as Baron Cup I champion in 3-2 thriller

Feb. 11—Injuries or illness, ice issues or ill fortune, Benedictine has been a model of consistency this winter — just not in the most optimal manner.

But these Bengals have a spine seemingly forged in steel, navigating every challenge with the hope that maybe, just maybe, it could all click on the revered ice at Brooklyn for one weekend in pursuit of a Baron Cup I repeat.

Unlikely and daunting as it was, those hopes came true.

Ryan Kehres lit the lamp twice in the third period as Benedictine — following a 7-16-1 regular season — notched its second upset in as many days, dispatching Mentor, 3-2, on Feb. 11 in the Baron Cup I final.

Benedictine senior defenseman Ben Trombetto discusses a 3-2 Baron Cup I final victory over Mentor

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) February 11, 2024

Coach Bob Kehres referred to his squad as a "MASH unit" just 16 days prior. The Bengals had five players out due to a bug coming into Brooklyn. Its home rink, the Cleveland Heights Pavilion, had facility issues that limited ice time ... again. Among those aforementioned 16 losses was a 7-0 rout by the Cardinals a little more than a month ago.

And yet, though all of it, the testament of champions in the Greater Cleveland High School Hockey League will remain at the Home of Champions for another year.

Benedictine hoists Baron Cup I, then skates over to its student section to sing the alma mater

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) February 11, 2024

"We just kind of put it together and got healthy at the right time," Bob Kehres said. "It's the first time I think all year that we've been a full squad, top to bottom. And the kids knew. They've been buying in all year. We don't pay attention to the record. We just don't. Everything is about getting better and better and better, day in and day out. And the kids did. They worked hard, and they buy into what we teach and how we do things.

"I love it. This is what you get."

The Bengals (10-16-1) gamely grasped a 1-0 lead after two after Mason Rzepka's rebound goal at 2:23 of the second off an initial Ben Trombetto wrister from along the right boards, the sophomore's 13th tally this season.

Benedictine 1-0

Mason Rzepka at 2:23

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) February 11, 2024

Ryan Kehres pushed the advantage to 2-0 just 54 seconds into the third on a wrister stickside, skating over to a jubilant student section adjacent to his defensive zone.

Benedictine 2-0

Ryan Kehres at :54

Obviously, I'm on the other end of the ice but here is the reaction ...

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) February 11, 2024

The Cardinals weren't going meekly, however, with Austin Andrews cutting their deficit to 2-1 on a crash through the left circle and tapper low at 3:20, his 13th goal of the winter.

Mentor pulls within 2-1

Austin Andrews at 3:20

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) February 11, 2024

Following an upset of second-seeded Rocky River in the semifinal round the afternoon before, and having come this far, being in a dogfight didn't deter these Bengals.

Benedictine got a massive penalty kill after a too-many-men-on-the-ice call, and 21 seconds later, another needed boost arrived.

Ryan Kehres pounced for a banger at the left bar at 10:50 to get out to a 3-1 lead. It was the 31st goal for the Bengals' potent junior center.

Benedictine 3-1

After a massive PK, Ryan Kehres with a banger at the left bar at 10:50

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) February 11, 2024

Joe Burger got Mentor (17-14) back within striking distance at 3-2 on a screened look from the right circle, the senior blueliner's ninth tally of the season.

Mentor within 3-2

Joe Burger at 11:19

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) February 11, 2024

The Bengals held firm, though, maximizing the cycle on a power play called at 12:43 after a Cardinals' highsticking penalty to keep play in their O-zone.

Not along after, the party sequel at "The Barn of all Barns" could commence.

Benedictine captures its second straight Baron Cup I & third all time with a 3-2 win over Mentor

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) February 11, 2024

"Great forechecking by Alex Rzepka (on my first goal)," Ryan Kehres said. "He left the puck in the middle for me, and I just saw he was off his angle for blocker, and I just went low blocker. I took my advantage, and I shot it. The second one, our guy shot it from the corner. It bounced in the air. It hit the top of his head, and I was uncertain what I was going to do. Then it sat right in front of the net, and I just hit it backhand. Perfect placement.

Benedictine senior forward Alex Rzepka discusses a 3-2 Baron Cup I final win over Mentor

Part of what was, IMO, a key component for the win: A smart forecheck, especially in the 2nd & 3rd

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) February 11, 2024

"We're a small school. We just really work together. We're a family. We all support each other. We said, 'We've got to keep going. We've got to keep moving on.' Obviously, with the setbacks, we just knew it was more of a challenge. But we've always had a challenge playing for a small school like this and going against bigger teams. We just always had that chip on our shoulder to keep going, no matter what."

Benedictine goaltender Jeremy Ade was steady in a 27-save performance, particularly the opening 15 when the Cardinals were getting the puck deep and producing some quality looks. Among them was Joe Mackey at 12:49 and Rowan Jakupca at 14:36.

Pretty good tending both ways in that 15

Thought Jeremy Ade had a solid period for Bene, including stops here on Mentor's Joe Mackey at 12:49 & Rowan Jakupca at 14:36

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) February 11, 2024

"Oh, he has come a long way," Bob Kehres said of Ade, who was a last-minute call to start at all due to the illness bug this week.

So have the Bengals, as the Cardinals can attest.

"I thought we were kind of a rollercoaster today," Mentor coach Paul McKito said. "It seemed like our best period was when we were down going into the third. That last 15 minutes, we scored two goals to make it a game. And then it's just unfortunate. An unfortunate bounce finds a wide-open Kehres right in front of the net.

"We've got to play a full 45. At this time of year, you have to. Otherwise, you're going to end up on the wrong side of the scoreboard like today."

Like Bob Kehres noted, his squad, through all its travails the last few months, did not pay attention to won-lost record, no matter how deep it got under .500. The signs of progress — and the extent of health for which Kehres was wishing — were there. The Bengals' best performance coming into Baron Cup I, arguably, was a 3-2 overtime loss at the Pavilion in Round 2 against the Cardinals.

Mentor vs. Benedictine hockey: Trobenter sends Cardinals back home winners in well-played OT clash with game Bengals, 3-2

Those glimpses became a full-on sight to see at Brooklyn. With a spine forged in steel, Benedictine became a model of consistency with impeccable timing to defend its hardware.

Benedictine vs. Amherst hockey: Bengals hoist first Baron Cup since 1971 with 3-2 thriller