While the Brookfield Stars have existed for quite some time, the current iteration of the boys hockey co-op is in its early stages.
After the Stars added Wauwatosa East, Wauwatosa West, Sussex Hamilton and Menomonee Falls to the program which already encompassed Brookfield Central, Brookfield East and Catholic Memorial, first-year head coach Greg Copeland set out to eliminate his players judging success simply on wins and losses.
His message was to use the regular season as 24 opportunities to improve for the time playoffs rolled around.
The philosophy paid off in the opening week of the postseason, as the Stars won their first regional championship since 2014 with an 8-5 win over Fond du Lac on Feb. 14 and an 8-6 upset of second-seeded Homestead on Feb. 17.
Brookfield, seeded seventh in the sectional, was scheduled to play at third-seeded University School of Milwaukee in a sectional semifinal at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21. The sectional final is slated for Friday, Feb. 24 with the Brookfield-USM winner facing either top-seeded Arrowhead or fifth-seeded Waupun at 7 p.m. at the Mullett Ice Center.
"We had to experience things before we could determine how good they were," Copeland said. "For our program to get this opportunity and for them to get the proof in the pudding of all the hard work and effort they've put in, it is huge for the guys.
"It is huge for the program, too. As a seven-school co-op, it is sometimes hard to stay on the list of varsity sports at some of these schools because you are intertwined with each school. It is really good for the first year of this new co-op to let people know we are serious about doing this."
Led by a hat trick from senior defenseman Grady Gibson, Brookfield advanced to the regional final against Homestead with an 8-5 victory over 10th-seeded Fond du Lac (3-20-2) on Feb. 14.
The Cardinals scored twice in the first 5 minutes of the third period to take a 5-4 lead. Eric Sinson tied the game with 7:42 to play, and Gibson completed the hat trick to put the Stars up for good at 6-5 when his attempt at icing the puck bounced into the net for a shorthanded goal with 5:38 to play. Schindler and Davis added shorthanded goals in the final minute to leave the final margin at 8-5.
"We're experienced being behind in the third period, so we did not lose confidence," Copeland said. "We just went back to work. We got a nice goal by Eric to tie it back up. We got a little puck luck when Grady iced the puck and it took a favorable bounce and went into the net for a shorthanded goal from our own end. That kind of put the nail in the coffin for Fondy."
The win left the Stars to face Homestead, a team they took to overtime Dec. 13 before falling, 5-4. That left Brookfield confident it could hang with the higher-seeded Highlanders.
Schindler scored to even the score at 1-1 after one period, but Homestead found the back of the net twice in the second period to leave Brookfield to enter the third period with a 3-1 deficit despite outshooting the Highlanders, 17-7, in the second.
This time, Brookfield came out fast to start the third, as Davis and Sinson each scored in the first minute of the period to tie the game at 3-3. It was just the beginning of what turned out to be a 10-goal period, seven of which were scored by the Stars.
"We did not expect something like that to happen in the third period," Copeland said. "I told them we needed to go out and set the tempo right off the bat and that if they really wanted it, they needed to bring that high level of competitiveness and kick it into the next gear. We came out and scored two really nice goals.
"The momentum started shifting our way after the first two goals. Our guys started to believe."
Homestead (18-6-0) immediately answered with a pair of goals to go up 5-3 with 14:09 to play. Michael Chavez cut the deficit to 5-4 before Sinson scored 12 seconds later to tie the game at 5-5 with 10:22 remaining. The Highlanders took a 6-5 lead but held it for only 20 seconds before Chavez tied the game with 8:16 left.
Sinson's second goal of the game gave Brookfield (9-16-1) a 7-6 advantage with 3:26 remaining, but it was his empty net goal to ice the win with 1:21 on the clock that was most impressive.
He battled an opponent for a loose puck down the ice and dove for a one-handed swat into the net just as the puck was sliding wide of the goal.
"The type of season we had prepared us for this type of game," Copeland said. "Where it was going to be a fistfight, 2-1, 3-2, we were going to manage that. If it were going to be a fistfight at 8-7 or 8-6, we were going to manage that because we experienced it this season. We're not afraid of scoring lots of goals and not afraid of having lots of goals scored against us."