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KAHA team nets USA Hockey youth national title; Liner scores twice in final

IMG_6844Jr. Ice Bears forward Gage Despins gets in on some rough and tumble in front of goal. Photos by Jolanda Jansma

By Stefan Cooper
Blount Press Row

When Robert Despins informed his triplet sons four years ago the family was moving from Texas to Tennessee, the outcry was unanimous.

The KAHA 18U Jr. Ice Bears dogpile in front of goal after the horn goes off. Photo submitted

The KAHA 18U Jr. Ice Bears dogpile in front of goal after the horn goes off. Photo submitted

“‘There’s no hockey in Tennessee!’” they said.

There is now.

Alcoa High School senior Aaron Liner didn’t miss with an assist from Lucas and Gage Despins with seven minutes gone. Jayce Dorman lit the lamp twice more before the end of the period.

The 18U Junior Ice Bears never looked back from there, the Knoxville Amateur Hockey Association team routing the Idaho Junior Steelheads, 5-1, in the USA Hockey youth national championship game on Sunday in Wayne, N.J.

Liner, the Bears captain, who’ll play his college hockey at Tennessee, added a third-period goal, with Gage Despins tucking the championships safely away with a short-handed strike in the waning minutes.

The Bears, the Tennessee state champions, capped their first finals appearance with a dominating display, peppering the Steelhead goal with 32 shots. Mitchell Kestner got the win in goal, stopping all but one of Idaho’s 20 shots on his net.

Alcoa senior and Jr. Ice Bears captain Aaron Liner, pictured here earlier this season, had a pair of goals in Sunday's championship game.

Alcoa senior and Jr. Ice Bears captain Aaron Liner, pictured here earlier this season, had a pair of goals in Sunday’s championship game.

Robert Despins said he told his sons not worry when the family planned the move to Knoxville four year ago.

“I said, ‘We’ll find some hockey,’” he said.

Sunday’s championship run began with assembling the necessary players and coaches for a travel squad, Despins said. KAHA, which holds its league games at the Cool Sports Icearium in Farragut, provided the perfect launching pad.

Gage and Lucas are both Farragut graduates and skate for same Ice Vols Liner will join Friday when the University of Tennessee team holds its inaugural Orange and White skate on Friday at the Icearium at 10 p.m.

“Our first year here, there was barely a travel team,” Gage Despins said. “We played a few tournament games. We weren’t any good. We were just happy to be playing. We progressively got better and better.”

KAHA was soon generating plenty of the talent for the travel team Robert Despins had in mind.

Liner and Gage Despins led with four goals each during the Bears’ five-game national tournament stay. Braden Pichel had Knoxville’s only hat trick in the tournament, with Jake Fountaine also blasting home three goals. Felix Bjurstrom and Dorman tallied twice each.

Five others – Lucas Despins, Kyle Lindsay, Michael Thompson, Mason Jobe and Austen Thompson – also scored as Knoxville (46-5-3) finished with a national-tournament best 27 goals.

That’s been the focus throughout the title run, Lucas Despins said.

“To have that happen when it really mattered was nice,” he said.

The Bears took their first steps on the road to the championship with the first of three consecutive trips to the national tournament three years ago. Knoxville didn’t make it out of pool play then, but the team got to see what it was going to take, Robert Despins said.

The 18U Ice Bears coaching staff poses with the spoils.

The 18U Ice Bears coaching staff poses with the spoils.

“Part of our plan was to get them a lot of games, a lot of big-game experience,” he said, “so they could see all the things that would be thrown at them and how to handle it.”

Robert Despins skated professionally and brought with him a lot of knowledge. Big in making it all work, he said, was not having to do it alone. In terms of credit, assistants Lance Fountaine, Jeff Lindsay, David Roulier, David Staples, Clifford Voorhees and team manager Dawn Liner deserve equal billing, he said.

“We had so much hockey experience to draw from,” Robert Despins said. “This group really knows how to prepare a team.”

Right from Liner’s opening goal Sunday, the Bears never looked nervous.

“There were no nerves with the guys at all,” Robert Despins said. “The only ones nervous were the coaches. From the time they dropped the puck, they were in the game. They said, ‘We’re going to age out next year; we’re not going home unless we win this thing.’”

Up, 3-0, after a period, they knew not to get off the gas, Lucas Despins said. The Utah Golden Eagles had rallied from four down early in Saturday’s semifinal to make it 4-3 entering the final period. Knoxville sprinted again to start the period en route to an eventual 8-4 win. They weren’t about to go through that again, Lucas Despins said.

“We knew once (the Steelheads) get rolling, they can be hard to stop,” he said.

Idaho pulled a goal back in the second period, only to see Liner and Gage Despins fire in rapid succession in the third to close it out.

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