BURRILLVILLE — All you need to do is take a quick look at its roster and you’d readily assume that the Burrillville/Ponaganset co-op squad is merely a season away from doing some real damage in the always-tough Emma Division.
There’s only one senior on the roster, and with most of the Broncos’ top players hailing from the nine-member junior class – as well as nine freshmen coming out for the team – not only does next year look to be promising for the squad, but so do the ones following that season.
But judging by the first half of this season, the future appears to be now for the Broncos, and youth hasn’t prevented this year’s club from throwing itself into the mix of the teams vying for this season’s state championship.
At 5-4 and just past the halfway mark of their schedule, the Broncos sit one game behind second-place Bay View and La Salle (each at 6-3) in the standings. The breakout team of the campaign, the Toll Gate/Pilgrim/Warwick Vets co-op squad, lead the pack with an 8-2 mark, but one of those losses have come at the hands of the Broncos.
Three weekends ago, the Broncos and the Warwick co-op team were actually tied for first place with 5-2 records, the first time two public schools were atop the standings as late as January.
But while Warwick grabbed a 5-1 win in that matchup and won twice more after that, the Broncos followed that defeat with a tough-to-swallow 4-3 loss to Bay View last weekend.
However, those defeats have been put in the rearview mirror, and this past week, it was back to work for the Broncos, who may have had this weekend off from competition, but still put in some difficult practices to prepare them for what lies ahead.
On Saturday, the Broncos will host a shorthanded Mount St. Charles team in a 4:30 p.m. contest in the friendly confines of Levy Arena, and the following Wednesday, they will have a golden opportunity to move up the ladder in the division when they battle La Salle at 8:30 p.m. at URI’s Boss Arena.
“We have a tough schedule, so we really need to put our nose to the grindstone,” offered Burrillville/Ponaganset head coach Marc Brissette. “We worked really hard this week, so hopefully, we’ll be ready for our upcoming games.”
Not only are this season’s Broncos the youngest squad in the team’s 11-year history, but they are also one of the youngest of the state’s 10 teams. But while Mount only has one senior among its 13 players, and La Salle’s 15-player squad is senior-less, only Michaela Smith, a defenseman, is graduating from a large Broncos squad that is 26 players strong.
“We’re very, very young,” added Brissette. “We have two freshmen and a sophomore on defense, and we’re pretty young at forward. Right now, we have two freshmen and two sophomores playing regular shifts.”
The Broncos also have two standout junior co-captains leading the charge, Emily Cardon, who centers their first line and tops her teammates in goals (11), and Tiara Bianco, who is one of the team’s top defensemen.
Their classmate, Taylor Duquette, has also excelled in her first season as a starting goalie, and she has been ably backed up by freshman Abby Bassett.
Cardon’s line features another junior, Teigan Palazini, who along with Cardon, also leads the team with six assists, and sophomore Angela Cardone, who has netted six goals, and the second line is also a productive one with junior Maggie Reid (five goals, five assists) centering freshman Kathleen Takita and sophomore Samantha Mancone.
Junior center Caytlynn Daigneault and freshmen Gianna DeFusco and Courtney Mancone comprise the third line, and on defense, Bianco and Smith are teamed up with sophomore Anna Nardelli and freshmen Kayla Gravel and Mara Carlow.
All in all, the Broncos have the talent and the potential to reach the finals in early March at Brown University’s Meehan Auditorium – which would mark their first trip there since losing to MSC in the RIIL’s very first state title game in 2003 – but it won’t be easy with the competition ahead of them in the standings, starting with the Warwick co-op team.
“Warwick’s the team to beat,” remarked Brissette. “They’re very strong. (Abby) Ellis is probably the best defenseman in the state, (Madison) Balutowski and (Kelsey) Holmes are both very good forwards and work well together, and they have a very good coach in Dave Tibbetts.
“And they have some depth. They have very good second and third lines, and if you don’t skate three lines against them, by the third period, they will wear down.”
La Salle, which went unbeaten last season to repeat as Division I state champs, has most of its cast back from last season, starting with junior tri-captains Emily Coughlin, Cailin Catarina, and Michaela McNamara.
And Bay View, which missed the playoffs last winter, has been sparked by their goalie, North Smithfield senior Britney Evangelista, who stopped 42 shots in a 3-0 shutout over the Broncos back on Dec. 28 and 37 more in last weekend’s 4-3 contest. In both games, the Broncos outshot the Bengals by a 2-to-1 margin.
“Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending,” said Brissette. “My favorite saying is, ‘Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.’ It always starts with the goaltending, and Bay View has a very good one.”
The Broncos’ last three regular-season games are against the Bengals (Feb. 15), Warwick (Feb. 21), and La Salle (Feb. 22), but before facing off against those opponents, they have plenty of time to not only improve their record, but also raise their level of play down the stretch.
“To be in Division I and playing against all the private schools, I’m pleased to be at 5-4,” added Brissette. “But our team has made progress throughout the season, and I still think we could be better. We still have a lot of games to play, so we’ll see what happens.”
Follow Eric Benevides on Twitter @EricBen24