WOONSOCKET --- Before the season started, Steve Shea had his share of concerns regarding his Mount St. Charles team and its quest to three-peat as state champions.
Graduation took away a talented senior class that helped the Mounties claim a 19-1 record and roll past Bay View in the state finals, and the voids left the second-year coach with quite a few questions to answer.
Can he successfully put together a third line? Who will fill in the blanks on defense? And what contributions can he get from his younger players, which include five freshmen and a few other first-year skaters?
Of course, that was back in mid-November when Shea was trying to pick up the pieces. Fast-forward to the second weekend of February, and it looks like the Mounties have simply picked up where they left off last March.
They sit atop the league standings with a 13-1 record and 20.4 power points, and if they win just one of their final two games this weekend, they will have a share of the regular-season title and the top seed in next month’s playoffs.
Of course, those two contests promise to be difficult. Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., the Mounties host the Burrillville/Ponaganset co-op squad at Adelard Arena, and on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., they will take on second-place La Salle (11-2) at Providence College’s Schneider Arena.
“We have a tough road ahead with this weekend,” Shea said before a recent afternoon workout at Adelard Arena. “But things are coming together at the right time, and I’m very pleased where we are at this point.”
Not only is Shea pleased at his team’s performance, but he’s also somewhat pleasantly surprised to see his Mounties rattling off as many as 13 regular-season victories for the eighth straight season and outscoring their opponents by a 70-8 margin along the way.
“At the beginning of the season, I didn’t think that any team was going to go undefeated and that’s true,” he said. “But I honestly also didn’t think that any team was going to have only one or two losses at the end of the season either, so I’m a little surprised.”
There are some things that haven’t been surprising Shea this season, such as the superb play of the all-senior ‘white’ line of his twin daughters, Caitlin Shea and Allison Shea, and Lauren Levesque, and league-leading sophomore goalie Sarah Erban.
The ‘white’ line has combined for 25 goals, 11 of them coming from Caitlin Shea, who is seventh in the state in scoring with 20 points, and eight from her sister. Last season, that line teamed up to net 24 regular-season goals.
“That’s our veteran line,” remarked Shea. “They’ve provided a good amount of scoring and a fair amount of stability on penalty killing. I think that line has just two penalties all year.”
Erban, who saw plenty of time between the pipes during the Mounties’ stretch run last winter, has certainly avoided any sophomore jinxes this season. She leads the division in goals against average (0.59), save percentage (.966), and shutouts (eight).
“We knew what Sarah could do based on last year,” said Shea. “She’s doing really well. And we have a freshman goaltender, Arianna Tourtellott, backing her up who could be a starting goalie on almost any other team in the league.”
While the ‘white’ line and Erban have made their share of headlines this year, so has the team’s high-scoring ‘red’ line of junior Alisha Sleboda, sophomore Briana Castro, and freshman Elisabeth Berard.
Three of the team’s top four scorers are featured on the ‘red’ line, with Castro leading the way with 12 goals and 15 assists that has her ranked fourth in the division. Berard is sixth in the state with 10 goals and 13 assists, and Sleboda has scored nine times.
And the third line has been an effective one, with junior Marissa Heroux and freshmen Jordan McComb and Brianna Luciani. Sophomore Allison Young, who has been out since Christmas with a concussion, is expected to be back in action this weekend and also see time on that line.
“I call my red line the ‘Young Guns’ because they’ve done a lot of scoring,” said Shea. “But the third line, they’re my ‘Young, Young Guns.’ At the start of the season, we had five or six players looking to create a third line, but we have four that fill in there and they’ve done a really good job.”
Another group of players that have done a really good job has been the four senior defensemen that patrol the blue line and help make life a little bit easier for Erban.
Lauren Deguire, who has played on the varsity since her freshman year, also has 10 assists this season, and along with MaryKate Stimpson, lead this pack. Cassandra Czarn has moved from forward to spark the defense, and Kaitlyn Croke rounds out the quartet.
“That was part of the big question mark heading into the season,” said Shea. “Even though we have four seniors on defense, some of those players didn’t have a lot of experience, but I think that foursome has really come together.”
After this weekend’s two games, the Mounties will be spending a lot of time together and looking to make the most out of their bye week heading into the state playoffs, which begin on the weekend of Feb. 24-25.
“We have a couple of scrimmages lined up with non-league opponents,” Shea added. “We also have a special skills competition that was inspired by the (NHL) All-Star festivities. Every couple days, we’ll do a couple more skills. We divide the team into two and we have a lot of fun with that.
“And we’re going to try to ramp up our amount of skating. That’s been very successful for us in the past. After this weekend, we’ll have a chance to just absolutely kill ourselves in practice. And we’re going to do it, and then we’ll taper off in the week leading up to the playoffs.”
While Mount and La Salle are locked into the ‘State Championship’ tourney, which involves the top four teams in the standings, the other two spots are up for the taking among Bay View, Burrillville/Ponaganset, and two other co-op teams, Barrington/Mount Hope and Toll Gate/Pilgrim/Warwick Vets.
Most folks are labeling the Mounties as the favorites to capture their seventh state title in the 10-year history of the RIIL’s varsity program, but you won’t find Shea among the prognosticators.
“Look at the New York Giants,” added Shea. “They didn’t have the greatest record, but they won it. I know it’s a cliché, but (the playoffs) is a whole new season. I’m very pleased with where we are at this point, not so much in the standings, but where the team’s coming together. I really think we’re coming together at the right time.”