Crazy comeback spurs Cherry Hill East to fourth straight title

The Cougars won the SJHSHL Tier II title in dramatic fashion, coming back from a two-goal deficit in the final minutes of regulation and winning in overtime

Cherry Hill East captains Calvin Aliferov, Jacob Holland and Elliott Schon celebrate with the championship trophy.

Fans began to file into the Flyers Skate Zone about an hour before the puck drop of last Monday’s South Jersey High School Hockey League Tier II championship game between Cherry Hill East and Clearview. Among the early arrivals was a group of Cherry Hill East fans standing behind one of the nets with signs. One of the signs included a quote made famous by sports broadcaster Al Michaels during the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic hockey game: “Do you believe in miracles?”

Those early arriving fans didn’t realize that sign would foreshadow the events that would take place later in the evening.

Cherry Hill East won its fourth consecutive Tier II championship in dramatic fashion, overcoming a two-goal deficit in the final three minutes of regulation to tie the game and then winning in overtime, 4-3, on a goal from an unlikely hero: sophomore Cameron Dailey, whose last goal in SJHSHL play came on Oct. 29, 2019.

“I just went crazy,” said Dailey about the game-winning goal. “I was going wild. Everyone was coming at me. It was unreal.”

Brian Cutler, Tristan Laperriere and Jacob Holland embrace after Cherry Hill East’s win in the championship game.

Cherry Hill East’s journey through the 2020 playoffs was something out of a Hollywood script. The favored Cougars cruised through the SJHSHL regular season with a 14-1-3, with their lone loss coming in mid-October. However, Cherry Hill East was knocked down a peg on Feb. 17 when Clearview blew them out, 7-1, sending the Cougars to the loser’s bracket of the double-elimination playoffs.

“We just knew we had to keep going forward the whole time,” senior Elliott Schon said. “We go down, it doesn’t matter. We keep moving forward, just get three more wins and get (the championship).”

With Cherry Hill East’s run of Tier II championships in jeopardy, the Cougars made a furious run through the loser’s bracket, defeating Holy Lenape Valley, 4-1, on Feb. 24 and Clearview, 3-2, on Feb. 28 to set up last Monday’s winner-take-all championship game.

Clearview’s Steven Lento carries the puck as Cherry Hill East’s Mikey Bottalico trails him.

Any momentum Cherry Hill East carried into last Monday’s game disappeared quickly when Clearview took a 1-0 lead on a goal from Mario Leone. Hunter Colella’s goal midway through the game gave Clearview a 2-0 lead. The two teams each exchanged goals over the next 15 minutes of game action, making the score 3-1 in favor of the Pioneers with less than eight minutes remaining in regulation.

As each minute ticked off the clock, a Cherry Hill East win looked more unlikely. The fans in the Cougars’ jam-packed student section grew more quiet with each passing minute. Turnovers and mistakes became more numerous on the ice as the Cougars began to press. The championship trophy was positioned on a cart near the Clearview bench with about five minutes left and the Pioneers still up by two.

With 3:37 on the clock, two events changed the trajectory of the game. A hooking penalty called on Clearview’s Thomas Rockey gave the Cougars a power play with 3:37 left. Cherry Hill East head coach Scott Busler called a timeout and a message was shared with the team’s senior leaders.

“We were just telling them, ‘This is all you got. The rest of the season. The last high school game of your career. The last game of the season. You just have to go as hard as you can,’” Dailey said.

Cherry Hill East’s Elliott Schon steers his way around Clearview’s Aaron Spuhler.

The seniors responded. A power play goal from Tristan Laperriere with 2:30 left cut Clearview’s lead to 3-2. A little more than a minute later, Schon scored his second goal of the game with 58 seconds remaining to tie the game at three and send the previously deflated Cherry Hill East crowd into a frenzy.

“We knew we could do it,” Schon said confidently after the game. “We knew we could come back. We had full confidence in ourselves.”

The confidence carried into overtime where, a little more than a minute into the period, Schon fired a hard shot on goal. Clearview goalie Logan Graham made the initial save, but the rebound went right to the stick of Dailey, who was in the right place at the right time as he buried the puck into the net for the championship-winning tally and biggest moment of his high school hockey career.

“Never,” Dailey responded when asked if he’d ever forget the goal. “This will always be in my memories. Always.”

Schon and his fellow seniors got to end their high school careers on top, with Cherry Hill East’s varsity team winning a championship in all four years they were in high school. However, upon reflecting back on all of the Cougars’ titles, Schon said nothing could top the team’s amazing comeback last Monday.

“This will be my favorite one out of all of them,” he said.

Cherry Hill East celebrates with its fans after clinching its fourth consecutive championship.