Mount St. Charles Academy coaches Dave and Bill Belisle will vie for their team's fifth straight state title with a young, but very talented team this season.
The high-scoring first line from a season ago has graduated. So has the starting goaltender.
And two standout defensemen who could have returned this year opted to transfer to prep school.
So does this mean bad news is in store for Mount St. Charles? Will this be a rebuilding season? Can you dismiss all talk of a â€śdrive for fiveâ€ť straight state championships?
No, no, and no.
â€śThis is one of the youngest teams that weâ€™ve had in a while,â€ť offered MSC coach Dave Belisle. â€śbut the thing that I like about this team is our sophomores and freshmen can play right now. Theyâ€™re that good.
â€śWeâ€™re going to be strong on defense and inexperienced in net. I think (our goaltenders) can do the job, but with our defense in front of them, weâ€™ll be OK. And I think weâ€™ll have enough firepower to have a good season.â€ť
The Mounties, who will break out their new-look team tonight in their Division I season opener against La Salle Academy at 9 p.m. at Adelard Arena, will also be facing a new Division I format that promises to be more challenging than it was last season.
They will be part of the Division Iâ€™s Cimini League, which features the other three parochial powerhouses in Bishop Hendricken, Moses Brown, and La Salle.
The Division Iâ€™s six public school teams, Lincoln, Burrillville, North Kingstown, Barrington, Cranston West, and Smithfield, will meanwhile be housed in the Eccleston League.
Last year, each team played each other twice, but this season, the Cimini teams will play each other four times and cross over to battle the Eccleston teams once, while the Eccleston squads will face each other three times and the Cimini teams once.
And come playoff time, the RIIL wonâ€™t crown a Cimini and an Eccleston state champion, but instead, award a State Championship and a Division I title.
A new power rating ranking system will be used to seed the eight teams for the playoffs, with an extra percentage point being added to the points awarded to any team that beats a Cimini team.
The top four point-scoring teams, regardless of which division they belong in, will play for the State Championship, while the next four point-getters will compete for the Division I crown.
â€śItâ€™s a scary situation for the teams in our division,â€ť said Belisle. â€śYou can have one (Eccleston) team run the table in their division and then beat one or two teams in our division to finish among the top four teams. Itâ€™s scary, but we like the fact that weâ€™re playing each other four times this season, Itâ€™s going to be better competition.â€ť
The race to the championship begins tonight for six Blackstone Valley teams. In addition to MSCâ€™s game with La Salle, Woonsocket will contest Cranston East in a 7:30 p.m. game at Adelard.
Levy Arena in Burrillville will also host a doubleheader that has Toll Gate and Ponaganset playing a Division II-North game at 6 p.m. and Barrington and Burrillville facing off at 7:30 p.m., and in Division III action, Tolman will also tangle with the Johnston/ North Providence co-op team at 7 p.m. at the Smithfield Ice Rink.
On Saturday, Cumberland and North Smithfield kick off their season with a 9 p.m. Division II meeting at the Rhode Island Sports Center on Route 146. La Salle and Lincoln face off at Thayer Arena in Warwick at 9:30 p.m., and Ponaganset hosts the new-look St. Raphael/Providence Country Day/Wheeler co-op team at 8:30 p.m. at Levy Arena.
Hereâ€™s a brief look of the 10 Blackstone Valley teams:
If the Mounties boast one strength on their team, itâ€™s in their defensemen, which is made up of senior veterans Ben Handanyan and Steve Donahue and two imposing underclassmen in 6-foot-2 freshman Keith Phaneuf and 6-foot sophomore James Casilli. And more help is on the way -- Nick Bennett is returning to the program after a yearâ€™s absence, but wonâ€™t be available until next month.
â€śDefensively, believe it or not, I think weâ€™re going to be stronger than we were last year,â€ť admitted Belisle. â€śAnd when Nick becomes eligible in January, weâ€™re going to have an exceptional defense.â€ť
While the Mountiesâ€™ blueliners are strong, their goaltending is inexperienced, with sophomore Brian Larence, who has just 45 minutes of varsity experience, and first-year junior Bailey Lessard expected to share the netminding duties.
Offensively, the Mounties should be in good hands despite losing the likes of standout Trevor Plante, Mike Magerman, and Zach Samborsky. The first line is senior Brian Campbell (9 goals, 18 assists a year ago), junior Brian Belisle, and sophomore Brandon Borges, and the second line contains seniors Ryan Berard and Callan Morisseau and junior Sam Glod,
â€śWe have two good established lines and an incredible amount of young talent battling for third and fourth lines,â€ť said Belisle.
Lincoln endured its share of bumps and bruises in its first season as a Division I team, but the Lions should improve on last seasonâ€™s 2-14-2 record with a large battle-tested roster thatâ€™s packed with juniors and seniors.
Two of the juniors, Jerzy Polak and Ryan Krohto, supplied a quality scoring punch last season and will be depended on to duplicate their efforts this year, and senior Matt Young leads the Lionsâ€™ defensemen. The true test for the Lions will come in net, where they have three freshmen goaltenders vying for playing time.
Burrillville went 8-10 last season, but with one of the stateâ€™s top goaltenders in Jacob Toback coming back for his senior year, the Broncos could be in line for a winning campaign.
One of the most successful Division II teams over the past six years has been Cumberland, which not only has totaled 75 regular-season victories during this span, but also won the Division II-North regular-season title last year and reached the semifinals for the sixth straight season.
But this year, the Clippers will have their work cut out for them if they plan to continue their dominant ways. Graduation took away several key players, and the Clippers currently have a 23-man roster that contains just four seniors, Mike Kinch, Ryan Huber, Nick Rainville, and Pat Noke.
Kinch is a talented center who has led the Clippers in scoring in each of the last two regular seasons with 26 goals and 17 assists. Junior Andrew Dulac, who also reached double digits in goals scored, will also be counted on to contribute offensively, Huber is a returning defenseman, and Noke was the backup to one of the greatest goaltenders in the programâ€™s history, Michaelangelo Federici, but enters this season as the No. 1 man between the pipes.
St. Raphael, which struggled with numbers last year and was rumored to be in its final season of existence, is back -- but as part of a three-team co-op with Providence Country Day and the Wheeler School.
The PCD/Wheeler co-op team was 10-8 a year ago, but brings back just eight players from that team.
The three schools have combined to create a 24-player roster, and nine of the players are from last yearâ€™s Saints team that went 3-15 after a quick 2-0 start and went through a midseason coaching change.
Junior Ben Mello and sophomore Mark Carrara teamed up to score 23 of the Saintsâ€™ 47 goals last year, and they will be counted on for solid contributions. Junior forward Richard Vichroski is a strong forechecker, and senior Connor Harrington and junior Tyler Duffy are veteran de-fensemen.
North Smithfield, which struggled to a 3-14-1 mark last year in its first season as a Division II club, has just one senior on its 21-player roster, forward Tom Bourgeois, but with its squad loaded with juniors and sophomores, the future looks very bright for the Northmen.
Standout defenseman Matt Prudhome and junior forwards Maxx Forti and Zachary Cordeiro are among the top juniors who are entering their third seasons with the team.
After finishing a division-worst 2-16 last season and winning just 13 contests over the last four years, things can only get better for Ponaganset, which brings back two of their top three scorers from a year ago in seniors Tim Smith and Nick Saccoccio.
Unfortunately for the Chieftains, they will field one of the divisionâ€™s smallest rosters with just 13 players. Junior defenseman Jake Saccoccio is another key returnee who will be looked upon to bolster this team.
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Could this be Tolmanâ€™s season? With most of the top teams in the divisions losing their share of key players to graudation, the Tigers return 13 players from an 8-7-1 team that includes senior 30-goal scorer Cody Casavant and veteran goaltender Stephane Meunier.
Casavant was second in the division in scoring with 52 points, and sophomore Jared Pedro was seventh with 35 (14 goals, 21 assists).
Also back for the Tigers are two other seniors, defenseman Zach Belasco and forward Anthony Bisbano, as well as junior defensemen Chris Baldwin and Ryan Pedro and junior forwards Ryan Deighan and Kevin Tracey.
Thereâ€™s plenty of optimism at Woonsocket this winter, as the Novans, coming off a dismal one-win season, enter this year with an 18-player roster and one of their former standout defensemen, 2002 graduate Nathan Arruda, taking over as head coach.
The three seniors on the team are defenseman Mike Plasse, goaltender Mat Defaut, and forward Brittany Simard. Big contributions will also be expected from three other returnees, junior goalie Ian Provencal and sophomore forwards Jon Flynn and Devin Fortier.