Comeback Kids

Under-18 Men’s National Team Rallies For Gold at U18 Men’s World Championship

 

There’s no better feeling than a comeback.

Trey Augustine, Brady Cleveland, Ryan Leonard and Will Smith proved this last month when they rallied the Under-18 Men’s National Team back from a two-goal deficit as Team USA downed Sweden, 3-2, in a thrilling overtime victory to win the gold medal at the 2023 IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship.

It was a gold medal a year in the making after the foursome were members of the U.S. squad that lost to Sweden 12 months ago in the 2022 finale. 

The group vowed to not settle for anything less than gold this time around. 

“I kind of knew all along,” said Cleveland, who will attend the University of Wisconsin in the fall. “I knew we had it. There was no question in my mind, and I trusted my teammates and the guys that were out there making the plays. It was something that we talked about as a group. This is what’s going to happen and we’re not taking no for an answer.”

The team performed phenomenally during preliminary play, sweeping through Latvia, Norway, Finland and Switzerland by a 37-6 margin, a commanding lead over all teams in goal differential. Team USA went on to top Czechia, 4-1, in the quarterfinals and followed with a 7-1 win over Slovakia in the semifinals. They then eagerly awaited their gold-medal opponent as Canada and Sweden battled for the second spot in the game.

“You never know how many opportunities you will get to play in a gold-medal game.”

– Trey Augustine

“I was asked after the semis who we’d rather play,” Leonard recalled. “I told them if it was Canada, it would be very easy to get up for with the U.S./Canada rivalry, but at the end of the day, Sweden beat us last year, so for the four of us that were there, we wanted it back really bad. We wanted to beat them.”

Leonard, who’s off to Boston College in a few short months, scored the golden goal 2:20 into overtime to clinch the U.S. its 11th gold-medal in tournament history. Leonard received a pass from Cole Hutson, danced around the Swedish defenders and fired a wrister from the slot to end the game. Additionally, the Amherst, Mass., native led the tournament in +/- (16) and finished third amongst all skaters with 17 points (8G, 9A).

Smith, the centerman on Leonard’s line had an equally impressive tournament. Another future B.C. Eagle, Smith led all skaters with 20 points and was tied for first in goals (9) and second in assists (11).

“It was a tough loss last year,” Smith said. “It was on our minds coming into the tournament. When we knew we’d been given the opportunity to have a rematch with them in the finals, we definitely wanted to get them back.”

The fourth and final returner to the team was Augustine, who backstopped the U.S. in six of its seven games and finished the tournament with 127 saves, ranking him second in SV% (.934) and GAA (1.61).

“You never know how many opportunities you will get to play in a gold-medal game,” said Augustine, a future Michigan State Spartan. “It was definitely on my mind that I was going to do everything I could to get another chance at it.”

Cleveland said last year’s heartbreak flashed through his memory when the team learned a rematch against the Swedes was on the docket. 

“The first thing I thought of was last year—those guys and the locker room after the game—and how sad it was. For me and the other returners, that was all on our minds. I was missing those guys and we wanted to avenge last year and win the game for them.”

The U.S. entered the third period trailing 2-0, but Leonard said the Americans remained confident on the bench. 

“I remember the feeling after what happened last year, and we didn’t want to go through it again, but there honestly wasn’t a fear,” he said. “I was confident in our group and I knew that we would get the job done no matter what. Once Terry [Carey Terrance] scored to tie the game, I knew we weren’t going to lose.”

Augustine made 28 saves in the victory.

“That was the matchup that I wanted, and for it to play out the way it did was amazing,” Augustine said. “There were lots of ups and downs throughout the game, but we continued to play our game and it worked out for us.”

A year after feeling heartbreak, the group instead felt vindication when Leonard scored the momentous, overtime goal.

“I was in shock and disbelief of what just happened,” Smith said. “It still hasn’t really sunk in. It probably will in a couple of weeks. I keep thinking, ‘Wow, that really just happened.’”

Leonard agreed.

“Looking at the video still gives me goosebumps. In the moment, I had no idea what to do,” he said with a chuckle. “Winning a gold medal is the hardest thing to do, and the fact that our group did it is pretty crazy. We’ve been together for two years and all our hard work has finally paid off. It was something special and it was amazing to do it with that group.”

In those two years, the group saw tremendous improvement on the ice and formed lifelong friendships in the process. 

“Coach would always say to leave the NTDP better than when we got here,” Smith said. “We can sit down and feel that we completed our time, and we definitely are satisfied with what we did here.”

Cleveland believes the group learned tremendously from the rollercoaster of emotions of the last two years. 

“Everybody came out a better person,” Cleveland said. “We’ll carry the lessons and friendships that we’ve had from being at the NTDP with us. I’m very grateful and happy for those times and being able to take a step forward and move to the next chapter.

“It was emotional in the sense that it was two years of hard work, blood, sweat, tears and dedication. And it all came to an end right there, but it was also a moment of gratitude because that’s what shaped us into the team that we were, and that’s what helped us win.”

Augustine called it a “perfect ending,” seeing his teammates draped in USA flags and having gold medals hanging on their necks. 

“All the hard work for two years paid off,” Augustine concluded. “That’s why we do it, to bring home gold medals to our country that gave us this opportunity.” 

Issue: 
2023-05

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