By Kory Catlett
Everyone counted them out. Going into the 2003 Clark Cup Playoffs, no one was giving the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders much of a chance. Topeka was too big, they were too strong, they were older and had much more experience in big games. Well I’m sure no one will give them a chance in the second round either and that’s just the way they like it. The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders beat the Topeka Scarecrows 4-2 to advance to the second round of the playoffs, for the second consecutive year.
The Riders rode a hot Goaltender in Joe Fallon all the way through the series. Fallon finished with a .944 save percentage and a 1.797 goals against average. These are exceptional numbers for any goaltender, but these are especially mind-boggling considering this is Fallon’s first playoff experience. He was the difference in this series. It wasn’t easy though. Another 1985 born goalie was also red-hot. Michael Zacharias posted equally impressive numbers throughout the series. Zacharias gave up only 10 goals but Fallon gave up only 8. Fallon, not wanting to shoulder any of the credit passed it on to his team, “They blocked a lot of shots and they got the win for me.” RoughRiders Coach and General Manager Marc Carlson was also impressed with both net minders, “Having a couple of 85’s in there playing so well is great, they are both going to be on top of the league next year.”
The Riders got help from some unusual places in this series. Matt Olinger scored 2 game winning goals after scoring 2 goals in his previous two seasons. Olinger, a Wisconsin Badger signee, notched his first goal of the playoffs during game one in double overtime sending the Riders up in the series 1-0. Then he scored what might have been the turning point goal of the series during game 3. At 17:08 of the third period, Topeka had tied the score with their second goal of the period, and looked like they were poised to snatch away victory from the jaws of defeat. They were skating better and playing with so much emotion that it hurt to watch as the RoughRiders just tried to hold on to force overtime. But just one minute after the Topeka goal, Slavomir Tomko, a 6’ 194 pound defenseman from Zvolen, Slovakia, took a hooking penalty setting up Olinger’s late game heroics. Rider defenseman Derek Peltier fed Olinger at the blueline but instead of firing the puck like he normally does, Olinger faked a shot. This left Topeka’s Mark Bucholz lying on his belly wondering where’d he go? Olinger skated around the sprawled out Bucholz and blasted a slap shot that found the back of the net with 29 seconds left. “The first goal was awesome but then scoring the second game-winner on home ice in front of our fans, there is nothing better,” exclaimed Olinger. Troy Brummett had 2 huge goals for the Riders. Early in the year this would not have been that unusual but Brummett had been on quite a goal drought lately. That drought is now over “Yeah I was on kind of a dry spell there for awhile but hopefully now I can go on a tear here in the playoffs and help us win some games.” Brummett commented after Sunday’s series clinching victory.
The Riders leading scorer during the regular season Chase Watson, a Providence College signee, also scored 2 goals. There is no one better when they get the puck and have room to get off a shot than Watson on this team. Watson proved that twice on Sunday. On two separate breakaways Watson found the back of the net. He had been scoreless up to that point in the playoffs. On his first breakaway Watson streaked past Tomko, deked Zacharais and backhanded the puck into the open net. The only thing Tomko could do was hook Watson and hold on for the ride. Watson’s second goal came on a Rider powerplay at the beginning of the third period. RoughRider forward Tyler Howells banked a perfect pass off the boards to Watson, who got behind all of the Topeka penalty-killers. It looked like a regular season shootout, with Watson streaking in all alone on Scarecrow goalie Zacharias. Watson let loose with a twisted-wrister that went top-shelf stick side and made it 3-2 heading down the stretch. Cedar Rapids would close out the scoring with an empty net goal by Zach Pearson with 1:04 remaining.
All of the skeptics were right, the Topeka Scarecrows were bigger, older and had more playoff experience but they forgot about a couple of things. Speed, skill, heart, and work ethic. Rider Captain and Providence College signee Kevin Brooks says “We are a family and no body wants to be the guy to let the family down. Everyone goes through a slump in this long of a season. We just happened to go through ours a little later in the season than most of the teams. Our young guys have played in big games before and they aren’t playing scared. They are playing with big b—-,” um insert male anatomy part here, we’ll just say attitudes. Watson echoed those sentiments, “Our young guys are stepping it up and our team’s got stronger throughout the series. That is how our team is, we get stronger and stronger.” Olinger summed it up the best, “We are not the most talented team but we work harder than anybody on the ice. We have beaten every team in the league, we just have to work hard and stick to Coach’s plan and we put ourselves in the position to win.” The Riders showed that with speed, skill, heart and if you work your butts off, and believe in each other Goliath can still be slayed.