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Central holds off West on emotional night

Feb. 16—TRAVERSE CITY — An emotional game for numerous reasons ended in Traverse City Central retaining the Jeff McCullough Cup for the sixth consecutive season.

In a game that wasn't even going to be played for certain until a decision Thursday night, emotions went through both teams in Central's 5-3 victory in Friday's Big North Conference boys hockey game at Howe Arena in Traverse City.

Traverse City West played its first home game since a check from behind Feb. 9 left sophomore defenseman Brady Lewis in critical condition at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids.

"It's been a tough week for everybody in Traverse City," Central head coach Chris Givens said. "A lot of these guys have played on teams with Brady before and then we get the news that Dick McCullough lost his wife. The McCullough (Memorial Challenge) Cup game is just emotional anyway."

Cookie McCullough passed away earlier this month. The mother of former Trojan player Jeff McCullough, for whom the trophy Central and West play their second meeting each season is named after, regularly attended the game to present the trophy with her husband, Dick McCullough. Jeff McCullough passed away from cancer prior to his senior season of hockey at Central in 1996.

"With Cookie passing, we just wanted to come out here and prove ourselves after that loss to West in the first game," Central senior co-captain Devin Garner said. "We wanted to prove ourselves for Jeff and Cookie and Mr. McCullough."

Central (12-13, 9-1 Big North) won the McCullough Cup 13 of the last 14 seasons, rebounding from a loss earlier this season to West.

The Titans (10-13, 4-4 Big North) won the first meeting 2-1 after West hadn't taken down Central since an 8-3 decision Jan. 24, 2017. West goaltender Alonso Ovaitt made 34 saves in that contest against the team that cut him twice.

"Last game against West, it's sad," said Garner, who scored his fourth goal of the season against Central's top rival. "Last game at Howe. But emotionally, I'm happy because we got the dub."

West didn't finish the Feb. 9 game against Cadillac after Lewis' injury, and the Titans canceled the following day's home game with Alpena that was supposed to be the team's senior night.

West instead used its regular-season finale against Central as senior night for its four seniors — Brandon Meyers, Jonah Starr, Carter Dobb and Seth Munro, whose father Mark helped revive Lewis on the Wexford Civic Center ice.

"These guys have used a lot of emotional capital in the last week to get to the point where they're at," West head coach Anthony Palumbo said. "But we played a really good team tonight, the team that won the conference. Kudos to them; they played well."

The Titans played Wednesday, falling 3-2 on the road to Gaylord in a league game.

"That was maybe even more remarkable," Palumbo said of the Titans' first game since Lewis' injury. "We played well. We ran into a goalie (Blue Devils junior Finn Kelly), but I think the shots ended up something like 56-16 for us. ... Kids are resilient. In a way, these kids actually lifted up the adults, including me. Their resilience has been amazing. I've coached 30 years, and I told them this team might be the team that I'm most proud of."

Lewis remains in the Intensive Care Unit at DeVos, but regained movement in his arms and legs. He underwent surgery Feb. 10 and is in a halo spinal brace for 8-12 weeks.

"He's a fighter," Palumbo said of Lewis. "He's a feisty little guy. He's a fighter. He's doing well. Every day is better day for him. He's in great hands at DeVos. The people in Cadillac and the first responders were amazing.

"It was traumatic. I'd never seen a kid in that position in my life. What these kids did was amazing. It's really remarkable."

The first two periods of the game didn't feature much physical play, although that ramped up a bit in the third.

Kelvin Kloosterman put Central on the board with an early redirection goal assisted by Matthew McKinney 3:30 into the game.

Jonah Starr made it even at 1-1 with a backhand breakaway goal just 2:20 later, assisted by Kallen Ray and Lincoln Seyferth.

The Trojans went back up on Arthur McManus' goal out front, lifting the puck for a 2-1 lead, with an assist going to Blake Weaver.

"We got off to a really good start," Givens said. "All night, we played pretty well. We had good jump, especially in the first period. That's the best we've moved the puck in a long time."

The Trojans went up 3-1 only 2:02 into the second period on McManus' second goal of the night. Weaver and Drew Davison picked up helpers.

"Our forecheck was putting pressure on their D, making them turn it over," Garner said. "We capitalized on that."

Garner put TCC up 4-1 with a power-play goal with 10:41 left in the second, set up by Collin Benedict and Graham Peters. West answered 30 seconds later and 21 ticks into a power play of its own on Starr's second goal of the night, assisted by Brandon Meyers for his 100th career varsity point. Meyers has 11 goals and 20 assists on the season.

The Titans tacked on another 4:22 before the second ended on a Kallen Ray goal, assisted by Landon Totten to get within a single score at 4-3.

Kiel Knapp recorded the win in net for Central and also drew an assist on Peters' third-period score that gave the Trojans a two-goal lead. McKinney also drew his second assist of the night.

West burned off a five-minute major that was called with 6:05 remaining to keep the final margin at two goals, giving Central a slim one-goal edge in the two meetings.

"In other years when West has beat us the first game of the year, we've been able to still win the conference," Givens said. "So that isn't a knockout punch by any means. ... That was in early December, so you're thinking pretty much your whole Big North schedule is in front of you almost have to be perfect; which after that, we were — but it's a lot to ask."

West plays Muskegon Mona Shores in Muskegon at Division 1 regionals Monday. The Trojans wait until Feb. 24 to play the winner of Mount Pleasant and the Lakeshore Badgers in Division 2 regionals in Midland.

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