NEW PORT RICHEY — A year ago, Mitchell High School didn't have a hockey team.
Today, they have state champions.
The squad came together last September as a thrown-together group of predominantly freshman and sophomores labeled as a rebuilding effort. Mustangs head coach Brian Lugo was faced with the challenge of bringing together a young team for a season of hockey like they'd never experienced.
"We started in September not knowing what we had, and finished with a record of 21-2-2 if you include the playoffs," Lugo said. "It's really a Cinderella story when you consider it's the first year they've played together and we have a team with seven freshmen and five sophomores. Everyone said we wouldn't be very good and that we should have reasonable goals. We thought it would be an achievement to make the playoffs, so it's unbelievable to win the whole thing."
The team competes in a 20 team regular season league called The Lightning Cup, which has a sister league called The Panther Cup, based in south Florida. The two leagues send their best teams to face each other for the state championship.
Mitchell lost its first postseason game, but won the next two to qualify for the state semifinals. A 6-3 victory over Dunedin qualified them to play in the championship game last weekend against the No. 1 team from south Florida, Spanish River High School from Boca Raton. Lugo's son, Evan, would score a hat trick while helping the team tally a 10-2 victory and hoisting the cup.
For senior center Kevin Porath, what started as a season of limited hopes turned into a dream season he will never forget.
"I didn't have high expectations coming into the season with it being a whole new team, but after that first victory I think we knew that we had a chance to do something," Porath said. "We didn't have the most talented players all the time, but by the end of the year we felt like we were unstoppable when we played together as a team. I couldn't have asked for anything more for my senior year. It's the best season of hockey I've ever played and best team I've been a part of."
Experienced players in crucial areas is part of what has made the Mitchell squad so good. The team boasted the league's leading scorer, freshman William Reed Nichols, with 29 goals; as well as the league's leading assist man in freshman Evan Lugo, with 34 assists.
And with Porath captaining the team in the middle and 6-foot-5 junior defenseman Alex Widera anchoring the defense, the Mustangs were tough to get past.
With Widera's size, he is often a target for punishment, but he was able to roll with the punches all the way through the final game.
"It was a challenge this year because it's not just the other team's players coming at me, it's the referees calling things on me they may not call on a smaller player," Widera said. "I just had to play through it and my teammates helped me adapt. All the hard work that we put into it and overcoming all that we did this year is thing that makes this championship so special."
The Mustangs could potentially qualify for a national tournament if they can continue their stellar play next season, something Widera is anxiously awaiting. For Lugo, just seeing his team come together under his stewardship has been gratifying.
"We have such a wide range of players when it comes to experience, from kids who have been playing their whole lives to a guy who had never been on ice skates prior to this season," Lugo said. "I think what I'm most proud of is the job that we've done taking these boys who were so individual and got them to gel and become a family."
Correction: Mitchell High School’s hockey team won a state championship earlier this month after not having a team the year before, although there had been a hockey program a few years before that. An earlier version had an incorrect headline.