Guilford boys hockey coach Ralph Russo had an indication very early that this season had the potential to be a special one for the Indians.
“In our first week of (pre-season) practice, we had a tremendous amount of energy,” Russo said. “Each of our skaters had a high degree of competitiveness and excitement. Unfortunately, we also had some injuries. One of our returning players had a fall season injury (John DeLucia, injured during boys soccer) that kept him from being 100 percent. Another one of our skilled players (Jack Ring) sustained an injury in a preseason game which left a big question as to when and if he would return.
“The first couple of weeks were a roller coaster. Winning our first game of the season against North Branford (4-1 win) without one of our starting players in the lineup gave us a great sense that we would be competitive. We are also fairly young with six out of our top 10 players as freshman or sophomores. My initial hope was that getting off to a good start would give our team confidence.”
The Indians went on to finish 15-5 in the regular season. They entered the Division II tournament after defeating East Haven 3-2 in overtime to win its first Southern Connecticut Conference/South-West Conference Division II tournament championship.
Now, the Indians will face SCC/SWC rival Watertown/Pomperaug in the Division II championship today at Ingalls Rink in New Haven at 2 p.m. The Indians (20-5) are making their fourth appearance in a state final with a Division II title in 1994 and Division III title in 2010. They had a runner-up finish in the 2011 D-II final.
“It means a lot to be able to play for a state championship and everyone on our team is definitely honored to have the privilege to play on Saturday,” said Kyle Dwyer, the team’s starting goalie. “But it’s important to remember that, although it’s a great feeling to get this far, we can accomplish more. We can’t settle for simply making the finals.”
The Indians are led on offense by its first line of Ring, Rick Sandella and DeLucia. Ring has 31 goals and 36 assists, DeLucia has 34 goals and 32 assists and Sandella has 24 goals and 30 assists. Combined they have 15 goals and 12 assists in three state tournament games.
“Ricky, John, and Jack are all super players to coach and watch,” Russo said. “Each one has a slightly different style and skill set. Jack has amazing stamina and energy. Ricky has excellent hand-eye coordination, and John seems to have a great sense of when to dial it up on offense or when to back up his linemates defensively. They have worked well together and have been our most productive line this year.
“Kyle has become an exemplary team leader who leads by example. He is a senior and has started every game since his sophomore year. He has become a true team veteran.
“A lot of people don’t know that he only started playing hockey when he started high school. He doesn’t make a lot of noise, but he has a lot of character. His work ethic and team attitude doesn’t fly under my radar. He has been a great competitor for us. He played some great games in the playoffs last year and this year in states and against East Haven in this year’s SCC/SWC tournament.”
Dwyer has a 2.40 goals-against average.
Also contributing on offense are Jake Watrous (seven goals, eight assists) and Jack Dacey (six goals, eight assists). The defense is led by offensive-minded defensemen Camryn Bagnall (12 points), Jack Kane (nine points) and Joe Neleber. Tom Cattaneo, another top contributor, was lost for the season due to a broken wrist injury in the quarterfinal win over Farmington Valley.
Other contributors include forward Austin Booth and E.J.Vickerman, who comes off the bench. Kane, Dacey and Vickerman are freshmen and Ring, Watrous and Bagnall are sophomores.
“To beat Watertown/Pomperaug we need to play a complete game and not let them run the pace of the game,” Dwyer said. The Watertown/Pomperaug Indians defeated the Guilford Indians twice in the regular season 3-2 and 4-1.
“We have to score early, have a strong first period, and then play smart hockey to build on or maintain a lead. If we let Watertown stick around like we did in our first matchup, they can be very dangerous. We don’t want a game, especially this one, to come down to a bounce of the puck like that first game.”
Russo said defense will be the key to beating Watertown/Pomperaug.
“Watertown is a strong skating team that has had tremendous success in limiting goals-against this season,” Russo said. “They have a deep blend of upperclassmen experience and key underclassmen contributors. They have been solid defensively and rock solid in goal.
“We will need to figure out how to score more effectively on them and match their physicality. Moreover, we have to be solid defensively. They have been so consistent this year we will need to play one of our best defensive efforts and make the most of our scoring opportunities.”