By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Boston – There were telltale signs along the way that pointed to this season being memorable, more so than all heretofore, for the Algonquin Regional High boys varsity ice hockey team.
The first glimpse as to what was to come has been seen by many as coming at the 9:47 mark of a scoreless double-overtime back on Dec. 19 in the finals of the annual Borough’s Cup tournament. That’s when senior co-captain forward Justin O’Connell ended it all in dramatic fashion scoring the only goal of the contest to seal the title, the team’s first crown since 1997, that jumpstarted things for the Tomahawk skaters.
“We have a lot of potential and we’re really well-rounded offensively and defensively,” said senior co-captain and prophetic goaltender Mike Tascione at the time. “We move the puck really well, but the biggest thing we have going is that we jell really well together.”
“I knew we had a lot of talented players and that we could give it a run,” said O’Connell of his team’s outlook. “We knew it would be tough but we knew we had a good team and that we could do something special.”
O’Connell and Tascione’s faith in their team grew in leaps and bounds as the season progressed. There were impressive victories along the way including triumphs over Agawam (7-0), Wayland (6-0) and Leominster (4-0) leading to the team’s first-ever berth in the Division 3 state championship as well as becoming Central Mass District champions and capturing a share of the Roy Conference title with rival Groton-Dunstable. The team was well-aware during the regular season that the Tomahawks were winless in their last four playoff appearances, but that was about to change dramatically.
When the bell rang for playoff competition to commence, this gritty and determined bunch that included seven seniors, was more than ready. The team launched a playoff win-streak that will not soon be forgotten, rattling off successive victories over Hudson (2-1), Shrewsbury (3-2), Groton-Dunstable (2-1) and Westfield (6-2), the middle two of which were OT shootouts that tested the mettle of this T-Hawk squad.
And the final piece came together, the most memorable experience of any athlete’s dreams, when the team took to the TD Garden ice on March 20 to challenge Eastern Mass. champion Hanover with a state championship on the line. But a title was not be as Algonquin (16-4-5) more than met its match in this one, coming out on the short end of a 5-1 decision to the overpowering Indians, with the lone goal tallied by senior forward Ian Kosovsky at 9:50 of the first period.
“The guys worked hard. Hanover’s a good team and we just got down early and couldn’t bounce back,” said T-Hawk head coach Andy McGowan. “But the guys worked hard. I’m so proud of how they played and finished the season. They didn’t quit. They kept grinding and that’s what we asked.
“These guys came together and that’s what this team is all about. The way they came together made it a special team and that’s what’s unique about this group of guys and how they developed as one unit. The guys will get over it. They know they had a good season and they know they played their hearts out.”
“Hanover’s a great team. We knew that,” added Tascione. “They just outplayed us this game. I’ve been telling everyone that we had nothing to hang our heads about. We had a great season and this has been the most historic team in Algonquin history so it’s good where we left it.
“They’re fast, pretty good sized and they moved the puck well. They just made it tough to play against. They seemed to find an open guy in our zone and they executed.”
Game decision aside, this was an experience that players, coaches and fans will long remember. Setting foot on NHL ice, the home ice of most players’ idolized professional hockey team, was a thrill that still lingered as surreal even as the afternoon came to a close.
“This is unreal. No Algonquin team has ever done it,” said a prideful Tascione, all smiles. “We were hyped to be here. It’s pretty cool playing where all the big-name players come. It’s a great experience.”
“This is an unreal experience. It’s where you want to end up in your high school career playing at the Garden for a state championship,” added senior captain Alex DiPadua, whose on-ice toughness was on display night after night this season.
“As soon as you walk out that tunnel, it’s like ‘wow, I’m actually here’. Last night I was like ‘am I actually going to the Garden?’ It didn’t feel real. But it’s finally sunk in. Going out there and seeing all the fans up in the stands. I couldn’t believe that. At the beginning I had a little bit of jitters and I was going through plays in my head but as soon as that puck was dropped I felt a little relaxed.
“It’s been a helluva time this past week and the weeks leading up to it. It’s been like all my teachers would say ‘keep it up, keep it going.’ We had all the fans behind us. You’ve got to give props to T-Hawk Nation. They’re unreal fans. They have so much pride and so much joy in their sports at Algonquin.”
Members of the 2015-2016 Division 3 state championship finalists are seniors Mike Tascione, Alex DiPadua, Patrick Priest, Jake Kelleher, Ian Kosovsky, Justin O’Connell and Joe Sullivan along with juniors Kevin Real, John Paterson, Andrew Tache, Alex Pietropaolo, Jacob Dickie and Matt Rayburn. Sophomores include Jake Alpert, Dominic Ferro, Thomas Ackil, Sean Prendergast, Nate Anderson, Dennis Achkinazi and freshmen Matteo Calvanese and Ryan Decker.