Feb. 1—After finishing as runner-up in the 2023 Division I state hockey championship game and being the final footnote in what was a dominant campaign for an undefeated Chugiak team, the 2024 West Anchorage boys team is ready for their own storybook ending this season. And the Eagles are using last year's failure as fuel.
"We definitely had a sour taste in our mouths after how we went out last year, so we're definitely coming for vengeance," senior forward Evan Fitzgerald said.
The Eagles are the top-seeded team in the Region IV tournament that is taking place this week after securing their first Cook Inlet Conference title since 2020 following a dominant regular season in which they went 11-1 in the conference and finished 15-2-1 overall.
"It feels pretty good," West coach Rob Larkey said. "At the beginning of the year, we had some talks as a team about where we wanted to go, and this was one of the goals we wanted to have, and it's nice to reach your goals."
As excited as he is to see how far his team has come, he knows that the path to return to the state finals will still be arduous.
"There's a lot of good teams out there," Larkey said.
He specifically listed Dimond, Chugiak and South who are all still alive in the Region IV tournament as well as Wasilla and Colony, who handed the Eagles just their second loss of the season last Monday.
"It's up for grabs, and whoever gets hot at the right time will make it pretty exciting," Larkey said.
The Eagles' mentality throughout the season has been about perseverance and dominance.
"I think we've had to deal with a lot of adversity and a lot of injuries," Fitzgerald said. "Just overcoming it and coming out with a win is very important."
While they've picked up a few new players via transfers, West's core group has remained the same and grown together during their four years in the program.
"It's like the last hurrah for the seniors, and it's obviously extremely important to me because this is my last chance in high school," Fitzgerald said.
West is a senior-laden team with 11. They are looking to go out on top led by Fitzgerald, a team captain who vividly remembers the gut-wrenching feelings he went through after falling to Chugiak in last year's state title finals.
That mantra of "unfinished business" motivated him and the team throughout the offseason and during their run through the regular season.
"I think after last year and taking second place in state, it kind of burned your gut all summer long, so that's the thing they want to accomplish this year," Larkey said.
Being a team captain is not a responsibility Fitzgerald takes lightly.
"It doesn't change a whole lot about how I treat these boys but having that opportunity to wear it, having the coaches nominate me is really special to me," he said.
Keys to success and intensified playoff mentality
West's explosive offensive potential is what Larkey believes makes his team so dangerous in the eyes of competitors within the conference and around the state.
"It's hard to contain us for the most part if we get rolling," he said.
West has outscored its opponents this season a combined 126-28, had six wins coming by 10 or more goals, and is deep with players in every shift that can score.
"I think our puck movement, our hunger, and our speed is what is really important to our success," Fitzgerald said.
They split their two games with the defending state champions, beating them 4-1 in the first meeting at Ben Boeke in late November and falling 4-3 in overtime in the second at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center in mid-December.
[Chugiak hockey hands top-seeded West first loss in overtime thriller ahead of winter break]
"You're not going to win every hockey game," Larkey said. "Chugiak played well ... we had our chances to win too, so we're playing good hockey and are right in every game."
The Eagles face off with South Anchorage on Thursday in their first action in the Region IV Tournament and plan to "come out hard" according to Larkey.
"We're not going to let off the gas and just take it one game at a time," Fitzgerald said.