The story keeps getting better for Hilltop High School graduate Kekoa Latimore — and with it, prestige points for the CIF-Metro Conference’s roller hockey circuit keep rising.
Latimore won a silver medal with the United States junior men’s national team at last July’s Federation of International Roller Sports (FIRS) world championship tournament in Italy.
He followed that up by winning the fastest skater award in the Midget Platinum Division at the finals of the North American Roller Hockey Championship Series (NARCh) two weeks later in Florida.
The NARCh Finals are regarded as the largest amateur inline hockey championship tournament in the world.
Few thought when Sweetwater district superintendent Dr. Ed Brand helped give the sport its first breath of life in 2000 that the South County-based playing circuit would extend its reach around the world.
Good things sometimes come wrapped in small packages.
Latimore capped his first year at Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn., by helping the Wildcats win the Division I championship title at this year's National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association national championship tournament, held April 11-15 at the Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City.
Bethel, the 2011-12 Southeastern Collegiate Roller Hockey League regional champions, defeated the University of Las Vegas-Nevada, 4-3, in the NCRHA finals to cap a perfect 4-0 run through the Division I elimination bracket.
Overall, the Wildcats finished 5-2 at the NCRHA nationals and 9-2 in 11 playoff games, including regional qualifying.
Bethel proved its championship mettle wasn't about the scores themselves (the Wildcats won three of their four NCRHA elimination games by one-goal margins and squeezed past opponents by a goal in six of their nine playoff wins overall), but by what each of its players brought to the floor to offer to the team.
Latimore, a defenseman, tallied two goals and nine points in the 11 playoff games. He scored the game-winning goal in Bethel’s 5-4 elimination victory against Long Beach State in the NCRHA quarterfinals.
UNLV and CSU Long Beach both compete in the Western Collegiate Roller Hockey League. Latimore’s game-winning goal denied Long Beach State the chance to defend the national championship it won in 2011.
“The road to nationals and competing there against the top guys in collegiate roller hockey was tough,” Latimore said. “Going into the tournament as a first year Division I team, we knew we weren't going to win it all, so all we asked from everyone was to give it their all and to make our school proud.
“Our team has worked really hard all season long, and we were more than excited to showcase our skills and represent Bethel University in a nationwide event.”
Twenty-four teams competed in this year’s top-rung Division I field. Bethel advanced to the elimination bracket with a 1-2 showing in Pool B behind WCRHL regional champion UC Santa Barbara and Eastern Collegiate Roller Hockey Association regional champion West Chester University of Pennsylvania.
UCSB won the pool title with a 3-0 record, followed by West Chester at 2-1.
The Wildcats dropped their first two pool games (4-3 to West Chester on a goal with under a minute to play and 6-2 t to UCSB) before righting themselves with a 4-3 victory against Ohio State in their final pool game. Bethel thus closed out the 2012 NCRHA finals with a 5-0 showing to sew up its history-making Division I title.
“We have overcome a lot of adversity this season, and we were strong enough to bounce back from it all, which I think is what makes us such a tight-knit group,” Latimore said.
It has been a storybook season for the Tennessee school. Bethel finished 17-3 in regular season play in its first year at the Division I level. Latimore ranked sixth in team scoring with six goals and 22 points.
A 4-0 showing at the SECRHL regionals, held Feb. 25-26 in Snellville, Ga, ensued to place a bold exclamation mark on the season. The Wildcats did it in dramatic fashion, winning clutch overtime victories in both the semifinal and championship games to punch their ticket to the NCRHA nationals as regional champions.
Latimore picked up two assists, including one on a short-handed goal, in the 5-4 semifinal victory against North Carolina State; Bethel defeated Central Florida by the same score in the championship game.
“It was a high intensity tournament throughout that whole weekend, and each team was in it to win it,” Latimore said.
It’s been a long haul for the Wildcats, who racked up a final 26-5 record in 31 games – all on the road.
Bethel has a practice rink but plays its games at neutral sites.
The Wildcats played games this season in Illinois, Georgia, both South Carolina and North Carolina, and Missouri before embarking on the final road swing of the season to Utah.
Josh Foote (Androssan, Alberta) led Bethel in post-season scoring with 15 goals and 27 points, followed by defensemen Cole Sonstelie (12 goals, 21 points) and Chris Roberts (11 goals, 20 points).
Foote led the Wildcats in regular season scoring with 25 goals and 53 points, followed by Sonsteile with 35 goals and 14 points.
Sonstelie hails from Reed Deer, Alberta, while Roberts is from Bartlett, Tenn.
Latimore is the only Californian on the Wildcats roster that features four players from Canada, seven from Tennessee and one each from Illinois and Mississippi.
The Lancer grad proved to be the team’s secret weapon of sorts.
“It was exciting playing against teams from the West Coast because I already knew how they played and what to expect from each team,” Latimore said. “So in preparation for nationals, I taught our team how the West Coast teams play, what kind of systems they run, and what are some of the best ways we can out-play them. So, going into the games against UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State, we were ready for whatever they had to throw at us.”
But nothing ever seems to go quite as planned; after a 1-2 start in tournament play, it was almost over before it really started.
“At that moment, you could tell some of the guys already felt let down and our chances of making it to the finals were slim,” Latimore said. “After the UC Santa Barbara loss, our team manager J.D. Russell came in the locker and gave us a speech that helped boost our confidence back up and light the fire within us.
“The first thing we had to change was our attitude. We had to start believing in ourselves even if we were down a goal or two, and come together and play two-way Bethel hockey.”
The win the following day against Ohio State gave the Wildcats third place in their four-team pool and a berth in the Sweet Sixteen bracket against the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“Going into that game, we didn't really have an idea on how they played because we never played against them in the inter-regional tournament in Missouri, so all we knew what to do was just play our game and hope for the best,” Latimore said.
Bethel defeated UMSL, 2-1, in overtime. Latimore scored the Wildcats’ lone goal in regulation; Foote, who assisted on Latimore’s 1-0 goal, scored the OT winner.
The Sweet Sixteen win moved Bethel into the Elite Eight bracket against defending Division I national champion Long Beach State. The Forty-Niners had become the talk of this year’s tournament after tying top-seeded Lindenwood, 5-5, in pool play.
Long Beach State defeated North Carolina State, 10-1, in its opening round playoff game.
In fact, the Wildcats found themselves trailing the Forty-Niners, 4-1, midway through the second period.
Again, Latimore said, it was almost over before it was over.
“That night as we were getting ready for our game, you could sense the nervousness in the dressing room,” Latimore said. “We were worried this would be our last game and we were going to be flying back to school early. The game against Long Beach State was, in my opinion, the toughest game we played in the whole tournament. Beating them gave us a whole different perspective on the tournament.
“It was not only a huge emotional win for our coaches as well as the whole Bethel squad, but it also gave us that extra drive to push that much harder in the rest of the tournament. We seriously thought we were going home that night and our shot of making it to the championship would be dismissed.
“When we were down 4-1, the team felt as though the game was all over and there was no way we were going to be able to come back and beat them.”
But all of that changed in the course of one period. The Wildcats entered the third period trailing, 4-2, but goals by Sonsteile and Ball tied the score. Latimore added what proved to be the game-winner and the Tennessee squad successfully weathered two Long Beach State power plays to claim the one-goal win on the strength of four unanswered goals.
“What I remember most in that game was feeling really discouraged when I let in one of the goals,” Latimore said. “My teammate Chris Roberts sat next to me on the bench and told me, ‘Don't worry about it, go out there and show everyone why you train to be the best.’
"After he told me that, I jumped onto the rink, took the puck from behind our net, skated across the length of the floor, cut to the middle, and then shot the puck far side and scored,” Latimore said. “The feeling right then and there was the greatest feeling I have ever experienced all season long. Celebrating down the rink, diving onto our bench, and hearing people cheer as loud as they could will be a memory that I will never forget.”
After eliminating the 2011 Division I champions, Bethel drew Eastern Michigan in the Final Four. The Wildcats won 5-3. Latimore picked up two assists in the game.
Being able to watch UNLV play Michigan State in the other semifinal helped Bethel prepare for the eventual championship game, according to Latimore.
“Both teams looked extremely intimidating,” Latimore said. “ I remember when our team was getting ready to go to the locker room, we saw UNLV and they were jogging laps around the facility, warming up on the cycle, and getting in the zone with their headphones blasting loud music.”
The Wildcats got loud themselves in their own way – with mental determination.
“Going into the championship, we knew we had to go out there and play our way of hockey and to keep a positive attitude even when things were going sour,” Latimore said. “We knew that UNLV was very skilled, smart, and when they had the puck they were going to gun it down in our end with full pressure."
Bethel's task appeared daunting facing a Nevada team that gone had 7-0 thus far in the tournament, including a 5-4 upset win over No. 1-seeded Lindenwood in the quarterfinals. But once again, the Wildcats somehow found the will to defy the odds.
“Once the game was under way, our team looked really good, and it seemed like we were out- playing them in every way possible," Latimore said. "I remember I got off the floor and I yelled to my teammates, ‘We can seriously beat these guys. We are out-playing them.’
“It seemed as though we went out there and played with every last amount of energy we had on every shift at every period. We knew we had the talent to compete against that team, but we went out there and truly played our hearts out. I'm more than proud of my team for coming together and winning the national championship.”
Bethel led 2-0 on goals by Foote and Sonsteilie in each of the opening two periods. UNLV tied the game early in the third period as the Rebels out-shot the Wildcats 19-5 in the final frame.
But Foote answered for the Wildcats, scoring to put his team back on top 3-2 and finally 4-3. Foote finished the game with three goals and one assist as the games No. 1 star.
UNLV finished the game with a commanding 40-20 advantage in shots; Bethel goaltender Ewan McPherson made 37 saves to earn the game’s No. 2 star.
Latimore called the overall experience at the NCRHA nationals “electrifying.”
“There were so many upset losses throughout the tournament and each team was there to represent their school and play college hockey at the best of their ability,” he said. “When I was out there, I felt the West Coast vibe, and I felt in somewhat of a comfort zone because it reminded me a lot of back home.
“I had an awesome time seeing some old teammates from Orange County (Latimore commuted from Chula Vista to play on several tournament travel teams), coaches who I played for in different tournaments, and also my Team USA teammate Sam Poyer (a freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo). He was cheering for me throughout the whole tournament.”
Lighting the way
Latimore said the experience of studying and playing in a different geographic region has been life shaping.
“It has been my dream to play college hockey, and now that I'm getting the experience of a life time, that just makes me want to train that much harder so I can perform well and help contribute to the team,” he said.
“Playing for Bethel University has taught me a lot about myself and what kind of hockey player I want to become,” Latimore said. “I learned the most important aspect of your game is that you want to try to achieve consistency.
“Being able to play your best hockey game in and game out, lead your team by example, and demonstrate proper leadership all comes from being consistent on the rink as well as off it. Playing almost 40 games this season, training on the rink, going to the gym everyday, while staying on top of schoolwork can really take a toll on your body, both mentally and physically.
I knew it was important I follow with my routine everyday, so it can allow me to play consistent when it was game time; especially the second half of the season.”
“Looking back at where I started and where I'm at now, is truly a blessing, and I'm more than grateful to be where I am at today.”
Saddleback Community College finished runner-up to top-seeded St. Charles (Cottleville, Mo.) in the Junior College Division. The Gauchos shut out St. Louis Community College, 5-0, in the semifinals to cap a 3-3 showing at the NCRHA nationals.
Central Michigan defeated Pittsburgh, 8-0, to win the Division II national championship while Lindenwood topped West Chester, 7-1, in the B-Division final.
Overall, WCRHL teams fared well at this year’s tournament despite not claiming a national championship. UNLV and Saddleback both finished runner-up in their respective divisions, Arizona State advanced to the semifinals in the B-Division and Long beach State (Division I), UC Santa Cruz (Division II) and UC Santa Barbara (B-Division) each made it as far as the quarterfinals.
Bethel's Foote earned Division I MVP honors while Sonstelie was named to the Division I Second Team.
Foote joined other Division I First Team designees David Novalis (University of Central Florida), Travis Noe (UC Santa Barbara) and UNLV's Nick Robone and Travis Barendt.
Sonstelie joined fellow Division I Second Teamers Sam Nixdorf (Eastern Michigan), Andrew Tamura (UNLV), Skyler Hoar (Long Beach State) and Jason Stross (Michigan State University).
Barendt earned recognition as the Division I Most Valuable Goaltender while Robone earned the Division I Playmaker award.
Two Saddleback players earned selection to the JC Division First Team: Anthony Squirek and Conor Parker. Two more Gauchos were named to the JC Division Second Team: Jon Verstegen and Angel Rios.
Vince Viola (Santa Barbara City College) also earned JC Division Second Team honors.
Saddleback's Matthew Han received theJC Division Playmaker award. Han led the team in regular season scoring with 27 goals and 33 points while Squirek topped the team scoring chart in the playoffs with seven goals and 10 points in six games.
UCSB'sTravis Faught was a second team pick on the B-Division honor roll team.
For a complete statistical wrap-up of this year's NCRHA tournament, visit the Web site at http://wcrhl.com.