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Burrillville/Ponaganset girls await Div. I hockey finals

February 29, 2012

Center and team captain Kelsey Koprusak (left) and right wing Audrey Jerome (right), who are the only seniors on the Burrillville/Ponaganset co-op team, will try to conclude their high school careers with a state championship this weekend. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN.

BURRILLVILLE — History has been extremely good to the Burrillville/Ponaganset co-op team when it comes to playing Barrington’s East Bay co-op squad.
Even since Barrington joined the girls’ hockey varsity ranks eight years ago, the Broncos have had the Eagles’ number. They own a 12-2 record against them, and a five-game win streak that has seen the Eagles strengthen their numbers by adding Mount Hope and Portsmouth to its co-op squad, yet the Broncos still win each time by five or more goals.
Last Monday night, when the Broncos skated off their Levy Arena ice with a 4-0 win over North Smithfield in Game 3 of their tough best-of-three Division I semifinal-round series, word quickly spread throughout the rink that their opposition in this weekend’s title series would be the East Bay team.
Plenty of smiles broke out among the Burrillville fans, and talk of the program’s first state championship was alive and well in the arena’s lobby.
After all, it was only eight days earlier when the Broncos routed the Eagles by a 6-1 score in their regular-season finale. How difficult could a best-of-three series against them be?
First-year Burrillville head coach Marc Brissette gave the answer to that question before his team’s practice on Tuesday afternoon -- very difficult.
“That score was not indicative of the game,” he admitted. “I think Barrington has a very talented team. They have a couple of freshmen who were among the league leaders in scoring, they have a couple of really good defensemen, and their goalie is good.
“We definitely have our work cut out for us, so we definitely aren’t looking past that team whatsoever.”
The Broncos, who will be making their first state title appearance at Providence College’s Schneider Arena since their inaugural season of 2002-03, and the Eagles, who are back at PC for the first time since winning the then-called Division II crown in 2007, will kick off their series on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Game 2 of the series will be held on Sunday at 1 p.m., and if a third and deciding game is needed, it will be held on Tuesday at either 6 or 7:30 p.m.
The Eagles skate into this series with an 12-6-1 record, their second-best mark since their glorious 2006-07 season, while the Broncos head into Providence with a 10-9 mark.
Someone who is unfamiliar with girls’ hockey in Rhode Island and looking at both records would automatically give the Eagles the nod to claim this series, but a deeper glance at the records would most likely change their mind.
The Broncos played in the extra-competitive ‘Emma’ division against the likes of longtime parochial powers Mount St. Charles, La Salle, and Bay View and faced each team twice, while the Eagles played in the seven-team public school ‘DaCosta’ division and contested their peers twice.
But when it came to the crossover games, the Broncos played the ‘DaCosta’ squads only once, while the Eagles took on the Broncos and the parochial teams once.
The Broncos ended up with a 1-8 record against their parochial competition, but Brissette only saw the positives when he talked about his team’s challenging schedule.
“Playing in our division was definitely beneficial,” noted Brissette. “It helped us because it made us that much stronger and that much better. I’d rather play that type of competition because the games are close and the competition makes you better, as opposed to playing down a division and sometimes beating some teams 10-0.
“But I told the girls, ‘Don’t believe for a second that just because Barrington played in the ‘DeCosta’ division, that they’re not a good team,’” added Brissette. “They‘re very well-coached, and like I said, they have some talent on that team.”
And most of the talent the Eagles have is young. They feature the league’s leading scorer in freshman Meghan Miller (26 goals, 18 assists) and another offensive threat in freshman Kelly Kraunelis (12 goals, 12 assists).
Freshmen Leah Hoder and Danielle Makucevich are two of their top defensemen, and the goalie, sophomore Sophie Faxon, the daughter of pro golfer Brad Faxon, is also good.
The Eagles only have three seniors, but they are battle-tested veterans and their captains.
Chelsea Larisa is fourth in the state in scoring (15 goals, 20 assists) and a physical player, Kaitlyn Mullen leads the second line, and Emily Carlson is another standout defenseman.
The Broncos are also very low on seniors, having just two, and one of them, team captain and center Kelsey Koprusak, will be capping one of the greatest careers in the program’s history this weekend.
Koprusak, who leads the Broncos with 15 goals and six assists, has established herself as one of the state’s all-time leading scorers with 59 goals and 66 assists.
“She’s such a terrific kid,” said Brissette. “She was the Student-Athlete of the Month for January, and she’s looking to play hockey in college. Right now, she’s looking at a couple of different schools. She already got accepted to Sacred Heart and she’s looking at Salve Regina.”
And while Koprusak’s offense and all-around play have benefited the Broncos this season, so has her leadership abilities, something Brissette says she takes great pride in.
“She knows when to put the foot down and she knows when to back off, and she’s really taken the girls on the past few weeks,” offered Brissettte. “Between our assistant captain, Jackie Keable, and Kelsey, they’ve done a terrific job at being leaders in the locker room and on the ice.”
Like the Eagles, the Broncos also have an outstanding freshman class that features Emily Cardon, who is second on the team in scoring (10 goals, four assists), playoff hero Maggie Reid, and Teigan Palazini up front, and Tiara Bianco on defense.
Keable, junior Sam Roberts, and sophomores Michaela Smith and Christina Bruno have also played well on defense, and senior forward Audrey Jerome and junior goalie Britney Bebeau, who boasts a 1.66 goals-against-average and .922 save percentage, are also worthy contributors.
During his talk with the media on Tuesday afternoon, Brissette did reveal something that not many folks around the girls’ hockey circuit know -- he tends to get emotional and let his tears flow after big games, win or lose, just like former NFL head coach Dick Vermeil did on occasion when he was in charge of the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, and Kansas City Chiefs.
“I’m a very emotional person that cries at everything, and the girls are always goofing on me because of that,” admitted Brissette. “When we beat North Smithfield [on Monday night], that was kind of emotional, and in the locker room, the girls said, ‘Coach, you’re crying again,’ and I told them, ‘There’s nothing wrong with crying.’
“When we talked to them after the game, I said, ‘You know, some of you may never get this chance again.’ It’s been almost 10 years since this team has played for a championship. I told them, ‘Relish the moment, enjoy it, and then we’re going back to work,’ so hopefully we’ll come out on the winning end when this is all said and done.”

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