A seven-year construction project reached its pinnacle on March 8, 2022. The Denver East Angels had been slowing emerging as a hockey powerhouse in the high school realm and on that day, they had an opportunity to validate that growth.

The Angels took the Ball Arena ice against two-time defending state champion Valor Christian. The stands usually get a decent crowd for the state championship games, but this crowd was unique. The Angels represented the entire Denver Public School district and the Class 5A title was something the rowdy fans wanted so very badly.

The man in charge, John Kopperud, knew that his team getting to the title game was a big deal – it just didn’t hit him until he made his way out for pre-game warmups.

“I remember walking out onto the bench and just thinking, holy shit,” he said.

He and the Angels gave the crowd something to celebrate with a 6-3 win over the Eagles, then continued their effort in the Division II national tournament where they once again became winners.

A state title and a national title? Not bad for the Mile High Sports High School Coach of the Year.

But when you ask him about his feats, one of them certainly stands out over the other.

“The state tournament was a lot more fun,” Kopperud said. “There were way more fans, nobody knows who won the national tournament the last seven, eight years. Everybody knows who the state champion was. In Colorado, it’s way bigger. At nationals, the stands were nothing. There was no one there. We had thousands at the state game. If I could win state or win nationals, I’d win state all day long.”

Hockey state pride is something that Kopperud has felt his entire life. He isn’t a Colorado native. He was raised in North Dakota and always took to hockey. He admits that he was never a great player, but he played in high school and participated on club teams.

As he grew older, he had dreams of playing where everyone in North Dakota wants to play their next-level hockey.

“I dreamed of playing for [the University of] North Dakota,” Kopperud said. “You know, the Sioux.”

It was the Fighting Sioux. Now it’s the Fighting Hawks. It could’ve been the Fighting Squirrels for all Kopperud cared. He was from North Dakota and that was the hockey program that everyone in the state wanted to play for.

(Dan Mohrmann/ColoradoPreps.com)

“The feeling wasn’t reciprocated,” he said with a laugh.

Eventually he found his way to Colorado, but he never gave up on hockey. As an adult, he continued to play recreationally for the same reason that people play pickup basketball, tennis or football. He loved the sport.

His love became hereditary as his son Matthew started taking to the game as a kid and that’s where Kopperud’s coaching career began.

“I started coaching him, and when he moved beyond me I was always coaching some different things. And that’s when some East parents approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in coaching there,” he said.

Even coaching youth hockey, he had a certain set of beliefs and standards that he felt he had to live up to. To simplify it, while hockey is always fun, Kopperud believed in getting his players to grow into the best they could be.

Taking the East job was a great challenge for him, but he wasn’t prepared for what he saw when he first started coaching for the program.

“It was a culture shock because of the casualness of the program,” he said. “Not that this has anything to do with it, but my son was a pretty decent player so that was the environment that I came up in and coached in.”

A competitive environment.

He took on the task of turning this casual program into a winner. And to do it at the high school level was a challenge that wasn’t going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination. He had to shift the mindset of the kids growing up in the Denver East program and directing their focus to a constructive goal.

“They have so many things pulling them in different directions,” Kopperud said. “It’s tough getting the kids all on the same page, committed to building a championship program.”

He got them to do it at the state level and expanded it to a national level. But with these wins under the Angels’ belt, the challenge now is helping them to understand that it doesn’t do the team any good this season if they simply live in the past.

“We’re fighting with our kids now,” Kopperud said. “The accolades we’ve gotten have been wonderful, but it’s getting to be too much. We have to turn the page, or this year is going to be over and they’re still going to be talking about last year.”

A classic high school coach at heart, he hates the idea of letting his kids settle. He always wants to push them to achieve the next goal, even if accomplishing the last one has made them the talk of the town for the last seven months.

Doing that means setting high standards and making sure that everyone is committed to living up to them. Those who aren’t sill soon discover the state and national championships don’t just appear out of nowhere.

“I’m actually meeting with my captains tomorrow,” Kopperud said. “Some players are going to be suspended because they’re already telling me that they’re missing [practice] for this or that. We’re pretty specific on what’s allowed and what isn’t. We’re putting the hammer down early. The bar is high, and I want it there.”

Having high standards is what has morphed Denver East from a casual high school hockey team into a state and national champion. It’s something that Kopperud learned dating back to his playing days in North Dakota.

It’s the kind of hockey he has believed in his entire life. And if the last year has shown anything, it’s that holding his players to those standards will lead to the highest success.

Trophies don’t just appear by tossing around Angel Dust.



Brandon Bird
Erie, girls golf

(Dan Mohrmann/ColoradoPreps.com)

It helps to have a freshman like Hadley Ashton leading the way, but the Erie Tigers were clearly the best girls golf team in Colorado in 2022. They made the long trip to Tiara Rado and played well enough to bring a Class 4A state championship trophy back with them. Erie had three girls place in the top 17 of the leaderboard – including Ashton, who won the event, Logan Hale and Kait Park. The best part for Bird is that all three of those players are underclassmen and last spring could’ve been the start of an Erie golf dynasty. The 2022 title was the first in program history, but all indications are it won’t be the last.

John Carricato
Cheyenne Mountain, boys golf

(Dan Mohrmann/ColoradoPreps.com)

All four of Carricato’s players finished in the top-14 of the Class 4A state tournament. That was good enough to give the Red-Tailed Hawks their second state championship in three years. The kicker is that of those four finishers, one score didn’t get to count. That’s a testament to how ready the team was as a whole to compete at Pelican Lakes. Riverdale Ridge took second as a team and had just one player finish ahead of Cheyenne Mountain’s top three. Carricato is usually able to take multiple varsity teams to invitational tournament which speaks both the depth of the roster he has built and the enthusiasm for the overall program.

Ryleigh Haynes
Platte Valley, girls volleyball

(Dan Mohrmann/ColoradoPreps.com)

For the last decade, Eaton volleyball has been the dominant program in Class 3A. Ryleigh Haynes knows this all too well as she played for the team in its run to the 2013 state championship. That began a run of five straight and the Reds added another in the spring of 2021. Seeing Eaton in the state tournament is the biggest mental hurdle a young coach could face. But Haynes wasn’t scared of her alma mater. She topped Eaton in the semifinals then held off No. 1 Lamar to lead the Broncos to their 15th volleyball title, the most in state history.

Shannan Lane
Pueblo South, boys basketball

(Dan Mohrmann/ColoradoPreps.com)

If Shannan Lane tried coaching any other boys team in the state, there might have been some resistance. But her basketball resumé was no secret to anyone in Pueblo. After guiding the South girls team for years (which included a state championship in 2013) she stepped away from the game for a couple seasons. When the boys job came open, she jumped at the opportunity to get back to the bench. And since then, she’s been fantastic. She got the Colts to the 4A boys title game last year and has earned the respect from her players and from her colleagues across the state.

Bob Maloney
Ponderosa, baseball

(Dan Mohrmann/ColoradoPreps.com)

Considering the Mustangs lost the 2021 Mile High Sports Athlete of the Year, repeating as the Class 4A state champions was going to be a tough task. But Maloney helped his guys buy into the challenge as a program and they rose to the occasion. The Mustangs rolled through the 4A bracket, winning their first three games by a combined score of 46-10. They reached the 4A state championship game with ease and would have had to suffer two losses at the hands of Cheyenne Mountain to fall short of their goal. They didn’t even drop one game. They beat the Red-Tailed Hawks 11-1 to win the state crown for a second straight season.

Dwight Swift
George Washington, football

(Malcom Quattlebaum)

When the football quarterfinals rolled around for Class 5A, 4A and 3A there was a total of one DPS school still playing. Conventional wisdom would’ve led everyone to guess it was Denver South considering the Ravens were having a fantastic season to that point. But no, it was George Washington. The Patriots have been a great story over the last couple of seasons and Dwight Swift has been the man in charge of it. He had signature wins toward the end of the year over teams like Frederick and Holy Family.