When the Rhode Island Interscholastic League decided to dissolve the seven-team Division I-A circuit in boys’ hockey during the offseason, that left Lincoln High with an interesting dilemma.
Do the Lions, who were 13-4-1 and state finalists a season ago, drop down to Division II and become the clear-cut favorites to win that championship? Or do the Lions take a bold step up the ladder and compete with the state’s premier teams in Division I?
The Lions chose to take the challenge, and while some folks in the Lincoln community weren’t happy with the move to Division I, second-year head coach Jim Riel thought it was the best thing for his veteran squad to do.
“We had to look at where we fit from a competitive standpoint,” he said. “We factored in what the seniors thought about it, the administration, the assistant coaches -- there was a lot of conversation about this -- and our opinion as a collective group was that we would have been more competitive in D-I. We had a season last year where we had a bunch of blowouts, and to me, that’s not competitive. If we went to D-II, we would have had probably four competitive games, so that’s why I think we belong in D-I.”
Joining the Lions in the jump to D-I are Division I-A champion North Kingstown, which also won the regular-season title with a 14-2-2 mark, and Barrington, which was second at 14-4. East Greenwich, Pilgrim, Narragansett, and Toll Gate dropped down to D-II.
Keeping the always-tough Skippers and Eagles on their schedule and adding the likes of three-time state champion Mount St. Charles and parochial power Bishop Hendricken to the mix will surely give the Lions the competition they desire. The Lions may be longshots to win the state championship, but Riel believes his team will be up for the challenges that lay ahead.
“Honestly, I don’t plan on finishing 1 or 2, but I think we can absolutely be in the middle of the pack,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a growing process for us and it’s going to take us a little bit of time to adapt to the new speed and new play. But I think we can be somewhat successful in terms of where we fit in line with the top public schools, and on a good night, we might be able to give some of the Catholic schools a run for their money.
Facing the Mounties, Hawks, and La Salle Academy won’t be anything new to the Lions or their large senior class. From the 2006-07 to the 2008-09 seasons, the Division I-A teams had crossover games with the Division I schools, and as freshmen and sophomores, the seniors got a heavy dose of the state’s top talent.
“Over the last 4-5 years, I think we increased the hockey competitiveness in the kids, especially the seniors,” added Riel. “Our seniors played big-time minutes in those (crossover) games and I think we beat La Salle when they were sophomores. We play St. John’s-Shrewsbury every year, which in my opinion, is one of the top 10-15 teams in Massachusetts, and those games have also helped us a lot.”
How well the Lions do this season in Division I, which also features Moses Brown, Burrillville, Smithfield, and Cranston West, depends on a lot of things, none bigger than combating their season-long bout with penalties last year. The Lions led the entire state with a whopping 287.5 minutes.
“That was Priority ‘A’ coming into the season,” added Riel. “Last year, we could get away with penalties, but this year, these teams will take advantage of them in a heartbeat. I think our penalty kill last year was somewhere around 95 percent, which was amazing.”
Part of the reason the Lions spent a great deal of time in the sin bin was because of their physical style of play, and while Riel still wants his team to continue its aggressive play, he also wants them to be smart in their actions.
“Keeping that aggressive nature is going to work to our advantage,” he said. “More than likely, we’re going to be outskilled by some of these teams, but how do we overcome that challenge? I think it’s by being aggressive, being a tough team, and working harder than our opponents. That’s how we’re going to be able to offset that talent.”
Another key to the Lions’ fortunes will be the play of senior netminder Cody Phillips, who was among the Division I-A leaders in goals-against-average (2.51) and save percentage (.899).
“Cody’s going to be a big factor this year,” said Riel. “If he can really be consistent game in and game out and if he gets on a hot streak, that’s when I look for us to really challenge those top teams. We have a lot of reliance in him, and we think he’s worked hard over the last couple of years where I think the reliance is definitely something that’s going to work to our benefit come midseason and heading toward the playoffs.”
The other members of the Lions’ eight-man senior class are also going to have to step up. Senior Ryan O’Dell, who led the division with 28 goals and added 16 assists, leads the first line, and classmate Brendan Dyer (14-12-26) is also back, along with veterans like senior Bill Nesbitt, senior defenseman Kyle Jessey, and junior defenseman Matt Young.
While the Lions are loaded with experienced players, so are the Mounties, who were unbeaten at 21-0-1 last season on their way to the 41st championship in the team’s storied history.
Senior First-Team All-State forward Trevor Plante, who was second in Division I with 15 goals and added four more in the Mounties’ playoff run, is back and will share the captain’s duties with Zach Samborsky (8-14-22).
Mike Magerman (10-14-24) and Alex Erban (13-8-21) are two more talented senior forwards, and junior defenseman Brian Campbell (7-12-19) is one of the best in the state at his position.
In Division II, there will be three sub-divisions, the North (Cumberland, St. Raphael, North Smithfield, Ponaganset, and the Providence Country Day/Wheeler School co-op team), Central (Coventry, East Greenwich, Pilgrim, the Prout School, and Toll Gate), and South (Middletown, Narragansett, defending Division II champion Portsmouth, Rogers, and South Kingstown).
Most folks view the Central as the toughest of the three divisions, with the Avengers and Titans leading the way. E.G. applied to play in Division I, but was denied its big because of the high number of teams already there, and Toll Gate, which was the Division I champion in 2004 and 2005, has a veteran team this season.
But the North figures to make plenty of noise. The Clippers could be that division’s preseason favorites, but the Northmen, who are up from the Division III ranks after three straight successful seasons there, could give their Blackstone Valley neighbor a run for its money.
Cumberland brings back one of the best goaltenders in the state in senior Michaelangelo Federici, with led the division with a 1.28 GAA and .944 save percentage. Junior Michael Kinch, who had 12 goals and seven assists a season ago, also returns.
The Northmen will be led by senior center Connor Naradowy (12-12-24) and junior goalie Brandon Caya, and the Saints, who have a new coach (Rick Zuckerman) and began their season with just 14 players on their roster, boast sophomore standout Ben Mello (8-11-19).
While Division II is going from one division to three sub-divisions, Division III is doing the opposite and going from two sub-divisions to one nine-team league that features three local entries (Tolman, Woonsocket, and East Providence) and Cranston East, the Johnston/North Providence co-op team, defending Division III champion Mount Hope, Scituate, Warwick Vets, and West Warwick.
One of the preseason favorites is East Providence, which is one of the few Division III teams that can regularly skate three lines and has 10 seniors on its 20-man roster. Seniors James Hall (12 goals), Trevor Medeiros, and D.J. Donahue fuel the Townies’ attack.
The Tigers are fielding a young 16-man roster this season with just two seniors (captain Pat Gray and defenseman Dylan Miniati) and four juniors, but have their sights set on a playoff berth. Junior forward Kody Casavant (10 goals) is another key returnee.
The Villa Novans are also seeking a return trip to the postseason and carrying 16 players in the early going, but boast some of the division’s best players. Senior Sean Mowry had 14 goals and a Division III-North best 20 assists last season, classmate Jonathan Gray (16 assists) was a top playmaker, and junior Zach Laprade also played well.
Once again, defending state champion Mount St. Charles Academy and state runner-up Bay View Academy appear to be the teams to beat in girls’ hockey, with two-time Division II champion La Salle Academy expected to be hot on their heels.
The other five teams from last season (North Smithfield, the Burrillville/Ponaganset co-op team, Barrington, and the Cranston and Warwick co-op teams) are also back and will be joined by Smithfield High’s first-year team.
The Mounties, who will be headed this season by first-year coach Stephen Shea, have the bulk of their team back from last season and eager to make another championship run. All-State senior defenseman Caitlin Bray is regarded as one of the best players in the state at her position, and senior forwards BriAnna Narodowy, Erin Rouleau and Samantha Smith join her as the team’s tri-captains.
Offensively, junior sisters Caitlin Shea (12-8-20) and Allison Shea (5-11-16) also had big seasons for the Mounties, as did classmate Lauren Levesque.
The Lady Northmen, who have been to the Division II finals in each of the last four seasons and won the championship in 2008, lost a good chunk of their team to graduation, but still have some standout players on their roster. Senior center Kayla Kiernan was one of the state’s top scorers last year, netting 16 goals and 12 assists, and junior Cassandra Sherman also came up with a big season. Senior defenseman Jessica Salisbury and goalie Alexandra Euglow (3.l6 GAA, .924 save percentage) lead the way defensively.
Junior forwards Kathryn Couture (14-8-22) and Kelsey Koprusak (7-9-16) are two of the big names on this year’s Burrillville-Ponaganset co-op team, as is sophomore goalie Brittney Bebeau (2.21, .907), who had a superb freshman season.
The high school season officially gets under way tonight for some of the Blackstone Valley’s boys’ teams. There’s a Division I doubleheader at Adelard Arena that features Burrillville vs. Lincoln at 7:30 p.m. and Barrington vs. Mount St. Charles at 9, and Tolman hits the road for a 9 p.m. game at the West Warwick Civic Center against West Warwick.
On Saturday, the game of the night features Smithfield hosting Mount St. Charles at 6:30 p.m. at the Smithfield Ice Rink, and there’s also quite a few doubleheaders worth checking out.
Levy Arena will host a 7 p.m. game between Burrillville and Barrington and an 8:30 p.m. encounter pitting St. Raphael against Ponaganset. At Lynch Arena, Lincoln battles Moses Brown at 8 p.m. and Scituate duels East Providence at 9:30, and at Adelard, it’s PCD/Wheeler vs. Cumberland at 7:30 and Johnston/N.P. vs. Woonsocket at 9.
The local girls’ hockey action begins on Saturday as Smithfield makes its varsity debut at 6:30 p.m. at Thayer Arena by facing North Smithfield, while at the nearby Warburton Rink, Mount St. Charles plays La Salle at 7 p.m.