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The Chi-Hi boys hockey team wants to be more than an honorable mention.

Performances like Tuesday night show the Cardinals are plenty capable of being just that.

Cole Koxlien scored the go-ahead goal with two minutes, 56 seconds to go as the Cardinals beat Big Rivers Conference leader Eau Claire North 4-3 at Chippewa Ice Arena.

Koxlien’s game winner gave Chi-Hi its first lead of the contest and the Cardinals held on to the final whistle to move into a tie for first place in the league standings with the Huskies at the season’s halfway point.

“I was just right where I was supposed to be and my buddy (Kyler Holmlund) did what he was supposed to do and we connected on that play,” Koxlien said of the goal.

The Cardinals (9-4-1, 5-1-0) trailed the Huskies (8-6-1, 5-1-0) three times in the contest and were behind 3-2 entering the third period. But Chi-Hi closed strong, tying the game at the 7:54 mark when Aiden McCauley scored his second goal of the game, this one on an assist from Sawyer Bowe. The back-and-forth contest stayed deadlocked until the final few minutes when the senior Koxlien took a centering pass out front of the net from Kyler Holmlund and beat Huskies goaltender Tyler Schreiter’s glove to take the lead.

“This was a great team effort,” Chi-Hi coach Scott Parker said. “Probably one of the best team efforts I’ve seen in a while.”

Jaden Hoople made 32 saves in goal as the Huskies kept the pressure on until the final seconds ticked away.

Eau Claire North found the net first when Tyler Geroux found the back of the net with help from Sam Thorp and Jaxon Vance to take a 1-0 lead 7:32 into the contest. McCauley scored the first of his two goals later in the period, knocking home a power-play goal with an assist from Brady Fixmer.

“We just don’t give up,” Koxlien said. “We just keep trucking, keep doing the things we’re supposed to do and work together. Be a brotherhood.”

The Huskies retook the lead 3:02 into the second when the University of Wisconsin commit connection of Zach Urdahl and Sam Stange teamed up for Urdahl’s 26th goal of the season, this one on the power play. Jack Schimmel tied the game at 8:14 when he knocked in a free puck on an assist from Nick Carlson before Joey Koller put the Huskies in front 3-2 with 56 seconds left in the second.

“After the second we challenged them,” Parker said. “We were behind the whole game and we said you’ve got to go out and make something happen. They (Eau Claire North) are a talented team. I have a lot of respect for them. I have a lot of respect for their coach and we had to take a step forward tonight and I believe we did that as a team.”

Help from others

In a contest with no lack of offensive firepower between the two teams’ first lines, it was offense from the second and third line that was the key to victory for Chi-Hi.

McCauley’s two goals were his third and fourth of the season while Koxlien found the net for just the second time in 2018-19.

“I give coach (Scott) Sikkink a lot of credit because we had to believe in a lot of freshmen last year and it was tough sledding at the beginning of this year and that second line of sophomores played hard,” Parker said. “Our third line came up with a big fourth goal with Koxlien from Holmlund. We haven’t been getting goals out of those lines in the past and not only that, they’ve got to play good defense.

“We’re starting to turn into a well-rounded team and give credit to my two seniors on third line (Koxlien and Holmlund), they really held them off and went and put pressure on them at times also.”

Defending the dynamic duo

The senior Stange and junior Urdahl have committed to play college hockey in Madison and have been a tough task for any team to stop. The duo combined for four of the team’s five goals in North’s 5-1 victory over Eau Claire Memorial last Thursday and have a total of 44 goals between the two in 15 games this season.

But the Cardinals were able to limit the two to just one second-period goal.

“We kept them wide,” Parker said of defending Stange and Urdahl. “Our defensemen did a nice job of keeping them wide, keeping them out of the slot. They had several chances, that’s part of hockey. But I felt we did a good job overall defensively.”

Stepping up on defense

Chi-Hi was without one of its most experienced defensive players as Tyler Bohland missed the contest due to injury.

In his absence the Cardinals went with a five-man defensive unit of juniors Cole Bowe and Blake Trippler, sophomores AJ Schemenauer and Ben Steinmetz and freshman Carsten Reeg that got the job done even as the Huskies outshot Chi-Hi by a 35-22 margin.

“We need us all to play well and be on the same page to beat a team like this,” Parker said.

BRC at the halfway point

Tuesday marked the midpoint of the Big Rivers season for both the Cardinals and Huskies.

Chi-Hi and Eau Claire North are one game in front of perennial conference heavyweights Hudson and Eau Claire Memorial after the Raiders beat the Old Abes 5-3 on Tuesday. The Cardinals will start the second half in position to make a run at the program’s first league title since 1988-89.

“North and Chippewa are so similar with the styles of play and the type of players that we have,” Eau Claire North coach Ryan Parker said. “It’s always been a dogfight, no matter what. It was just one of those games that whoever has the momentum usually gets the better chances and the chances are going to be far and few between.

“The team that capitalizes the most is going to win.”

The Cardinals will quickly turn their attention to the second half of the league season, starting Thursday when Chi-Hi hits the road to face defending state champion Hudson. Chi-Hi picked up a 4-3 over the Raiders at home on Nov. 29, a game many in the halls of Chi-Hi didn’t think the Cardinals would win. The team opened some more eyes on Tuesday.

“Everyone at school was saying North’s too good, you’re not going to win,” Hoople said. “We came out here today and I think this year compared to last year, we’re not laying down for any teams. We’re coming out, we don’t care who they are. We’re going to play our game. We’re going to put goals in the net, we’re going to play good D in the zone. I think beating North, who is a very good team in the state, brings the name Chippewa up.”

The game marks the first of several tough road games in the second half with trips to Eau Claire Memorial (Jan. 29) and Eau Claire North (Feb. 7).

“We play a lot of good teams,” Hoople said of the second half schedule. “Our conference is probably one of the hardest in the state of Wisconsin. On any given day any team can win and I think we just got to come to practice ready to go every day and get better and better.”

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Chippewa Herald sports editor

Chippewa Herald Sports Editor

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