SUN PRAIRIE — After a tense overtime meeting in the WIAA state tournament semifinals last season, the Sun Prairie boys hockey team got another crack at the Waukesha North co-op Saturday night.
The Cardinals, however, again came up short as the Wings defended their title at the 18th annual Ground Hog tournament at Sun Prairie Ice Arena.
Sophomore forward Garrett Wilderman scored two goals and junior goaltender Garrett Larsen made 32 saves in leading the Wings, ranked eighth in the state coaches’ poll, to a 3-1 victory.
The game was a rematch of last season’s state semifinal, which the Wings won 5-4 on a goal by Wilderman in overtime. Waukesha then dropped a 2-1 decision to Hudson in the state final.
“It felt a lot like the state game — a lot of up-and-down action, a fast-paced game,” Sun Prairie coach Chris Finkler said. “It was what we expected.”
Wilderman scored 14 seconds into Saturday’s game for Waukesha (13-4-3).
“There he is again. He had a fantastic week all-around,” said Finkler, who lamented the Cardinals giving up the early goal.
“Nobody wants that,” he said. “It was an unfortunate goal. We responded really well after that. We definitely put more pressure on the net and got some chances.”
Junior forward Benett Halbleib answered for the Cardinals (16-3-1) off an assist from sophomore forward Kaden Brunson, tying the game at 1-1 with 1:22 left in the first period.
But the Classic Eight Conference leader responded quickly when senior forward Joziah Dietrich scored an unassisted goal with 36.1 seconds remaining in the first period, giving the Wings a 2-1 lead.
“That was a big goal,” Waukesha coach Raja Aylsworth said.
Wilderman’s second goal came on a power-play opportunity with 3:16 remaining in the second period.
“They put together a good game,” Aylsworth said about his team. “I thought it was good team defense. We had some nice scoring opportunities and nice shots. That’s the way we need to play.”
Both teams continued to test the goaltenders, but Larsen and Sun Prairie junior Owen Leatherberry (34 saves) thwarted any more scoring bids.
“Larsen is a top-end goalie in the state,” Finkler said. “He’s arguably the best. In my opinion, he is.”
The Cardinals entered the final led by a potent line — Halbleib (24 goals, 23 assists), Brunson (14 goals, 29 assists) and junior forward Travis Kernen (16 goals, 25 assists). Brunson ranked sixth in the state in assists and Halbleib, the nephew of Verona girls basketball coach Angie (Halbleib) Murphy, was eighth in the state in points. On Saturday, Halbleib scored his 25th goal and Brunson added his 30th assist.
Waukesha defeated Madison Memorial 4-1 in last year’s title game and edged Waunakee 3-2 in the 2016 final.
Sun Prairie advanced to the final of this year’s Ground Hog’s eight-team tournament with a 6-2 quarterfinal victory over Madison Memorial on Tuesday and a 5-4 semifinal win over Waunakee on Friday. Senior defenseman C.J. Harkins scored two goals in the Cardinals’ victory over Waunakee.
Waukesha advanced to this season’s title game with victories over the Kettle Moraine co-op and Oregon.
Waukesha Wings 2 1 0 — 3
Sun Prairie 1 0 0 — 1
First period: W — Wilderman (Tucker, Chad Larsen), 0:14; SP — Halbleib (Brunson), 15:38; W — Dietrich (unassisted), 16:24.
Second period: W — Wilderman (Broda), 13:44 (pp).
Saves: W (G. Larsen) 32; SP (Leatherberry) 34.