The SCC playoffs can’t arrive fast enough for the West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy girls hockey team.
Speeding along with a perfect 7-0 record, the Westie Sharks have been slowed for the first time this season and are now in quarantine due to COVID-19 protocols. It means their final five regular season games are canceled, including Tuesday’s second meeting of the season with defending SCC champion Guilford.
The one blessing for West Haven/SHA is that it will return for the SCC playoffs, which start on March 20. With an unbeaten record, which includes a win over second-place Guilford (5-1), the Westie Sharks will be the top seed for the tournament and will begin play in the semifinals on March 23.
Coach Erin Blake, who relayed the disappointing news of the quarantine to her players earlier this week, is positive they’ll be ready to go when they get back on the ice.
“The next couple of weeks breaks my heart for the girls,” Blake said. “When the girls were told they had to quarantine, there was not one negative remark or complaint. Their appreciation of being able to play, optimism over each situation, and heart has made this team what it is today, and that is what will get us to the 20th quickly.”
The Westie Sharks have been in peak form since the season began. They’ve won six of seven games by multiple goals, topped defending SCC champion Guilford 5-3 on Feb. 23, and beat last year’s conference runner-up, the Amity co-op, twice.
The final contest before quarantine was a thriller against Amity on Saturday, as sophomore forward Emilee DeGrand tied the score with 45.5 seconds remaining in regulation, and scored again with three seconds left in overtime to give West Haven/SHA a 3-2 victory.
Meghan Dupre, a junior defender, assisted on the game-winner and had five blocked shots, and junior goalie Grace Nowak made 31 saves.
Having underclassmen come through has been a theme this season, as West Haven/SHA has just seven seniors on a varsity roster of 26.
Even with that roster, however, Blake said with protocols and an abbreviated schedule, this year’s selection of captains took on greater importance.
Defender Mackenzie Gardner and forward Jenna Hunt are co-captains, and forward Jianna Cohrs and Mia Celantano, and goalie Hailey Alfano are assistant captains.
“This group of seniors is just remarkable the way they handle each obstacle thrown their way with ease,” Blake said. “They lead by setting a continual example for the team and have been a huge asset to our program since their freshman year. Each girl brings something special to our team and together they are even better.”
The seven wins so far gives West Haven/SHA a record of 38-14 during the past three seasons, making it a consistent contender.
The team graduated three elite players last spring, including two-thirds of the “Conehead” line — Taylor Nowak, the program’s all-time leading scorer, and Megan Froelich — along with All-State defender Brooke McNabola.
Several players have stepped up to fill that void.
Blake said the starting line of Celentano centering Cohrs and Hunt, the team’s leading scorer, has netted a goal early in every game to set the tone, and players such as DeGrand and junior Maya Boyhen have also had big moments.
“Everyone contributes and puts the puck in the net,” Blake said. “It’s nice to see such a large array of players’ names in the scoring column.”
On defense, Blake said goalie Grace Nowak has been “‘phenomenal” since returning from the injury which sidelined her during the back half of the 2019-20 season. Alfano and junior Hannah Davey, who filled the gap last year, have also seen time between the pipes.
Gardner leads an outstanding defense which has allowed just eight goals in seven games.
“Mackenzie has no off switch,” Blake said. “Her energy, aggressiveness to the puck, and shot are a huge part of our success offensively and defensively.”
The junior Dupre, a fast skater with a “keen hockey sense” according to Blake, has also played a major role on defense, alongside freshmen Taylor Alfano and Julianna Montano.
The depth at every position puts West Haven/SHA in prime position to claim an SCC championship, with the wild card being how the team handles being back on the ice after the quarantine.
The early indications, Blake said, are that the players are keeping their focus on the team.
“The girls have already planned out nightly team bonding via Zoom calls to stay together as the tight knit group that they are,” Blake said. “From trivia to workouts on the calls, they are keeping each other up and ready to play.
“They want this more now due to the quarantine.”