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Orange Lutheran hockey has grown into a powerhouse
The rise of Orange Lutheran High’s hockey program was swift.
On Feb. 20, the Lancers captured their second consecutive California Amateur Hockey Association state championship and secured a third straight trip to the USA Hockey High School Nationals.
It’s hard to believe that as recently as four years ago, when now-seniors Jacob Heller, Chandler Ditolla, Matthew Knutson and Andrew Ford joined the program, Orange Lutheran wasn’t a powerhouse.
For the 2012-13 season, the Lancers joined the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League’s expanding field of Division 1 varsity teams.
Their learning curve proved challenging.
Orange Lutheran that inaugural year found there always are lessons to be learned in defeat.
“We lost to Santa Margarita in the semifinals or the quarterfinals, 5-1,” Heller said. “They won nationals that year. We were like, ‘Hey, we didn’t get killed by the national championship team.’ ”
That statement, mild in manner, reflected the team’s growing confidence.
Orange Lutheran would soon transition from playing for fun to playing to contend.
During the next year, the Lancers made the kind of progress that made committing to the cause easier for their youngsters.
“I was planning on sticking with club,” said Knutson, who played with the Anaheim Jr. Ducks before high school. “Once I found out how seriously (Orange Lutheran) took their hockey in the high school league, I only did high school.”
For the 2013-14 season, Orange Lutheran added a junior varsity team.
Growing internally, the program also caught on in larger hockey circles. That year, the Lancers made a name for themselves, beating Santa Margarita at the state tournament to reach the final. They later received a nationals berth but felt there still was work to be done.
“Going (to nationals) my sophomore year as the runner-up, we kind of felt like we didn’t deserve to be there,” Heller said. “It’s just different. It’s way better going in as the champion so you have a little bit of momentum.”
The Lancers went back to work.
Assisted by then-junior goaltender A.J. Frosh, Orange Lutheran returned to the California Amateur Hockey Association final last season and won its first state title.
This year, the Lancers repeated as state champions. Heller and Ditolla scored goals in the final, with Frosh picking up the win in a 6-2 triumph over JSerra.
Furthermore, an oddity has surfaced in Orange Lutheran’s three runs to the national tournament.
In each of the past three seasons, the Lancers have lost their first state tournament game before reaching the final. It’s an inexplicable phenomenon, but Orange Lutheran has never panicked in win-or-go-home situations.
“When it’s a situation like that,” Ford said, “losing the first game, it makes everyone think about their roles and responsibilities, and how to work as a team. All of us are pretty experienced and have been in those situations before.
“Our coach (Dan Adams) knows that very well. When we’re in those situations, we know how to perform.”
Orange Lutheran can add to the program’s legacy in three weeks at nationals in Virginia.
Individually, Heller already has pieced together a highlight-filled career. The senior is the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League’s all-time leader in points with 82.
Heller wants it to be known that the record would not have been possible without the help of his teammates. As a sophomore, Heller played on a lethal line with Riley Kraemer – third in the league’s history with 69 career points – and Brody Norcutt.
“That was my favorite line of all time,” Heller said. “We were one, two and three in points in the whole league. We just dominated out there. Those two guys were a big reason why I had so much success in this league.”
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