WESTBOROUGH – The NorthStar Ice Sports crowd burst into applause – not for the drop of the puck, but for the drop of a sheet.
As the Shrewsbury Colonials took the ice for their season-opening matchup against Billerica-Chelmsford on Thursday – the team’s first non-scrimmage action since their MIAA Division 1 championship victory last March – they were greeted by five familiar faces: Maddie Mrva, Taylor Ryder, Rachel Bunsick, Katie Vona and Paige Estaphan. The four former captains – and Estaphan, the former team manager – stood eagerly with string in their hands, ready to pull and unveil the team’s new championship banner.
Though the banner listed 11 conference-championship victories, the bottom half, reserved for state championships, had been noticeably empty. As Mrva, Ryder, Bunsick, Vona and Estaphan revealed the banner, the bottom section was filled with a striking “2023,” solidifying the team’s historic state championship victory.
“It feels unreal. It’s kind of a full circle moment for us, coming back here a year later and just being able to recognize what a great season we had last year and how nothing will ever be the same as that season… It makes it honestly so cool to see it up there,” Mrva, who now attends Bowdoin College, told the Community Advocate.
As the game started, the five Shrewsbury legends sat on the bleachers to watch their former teammates.
“It’s kind of sad in a way. I kind of miss playing hockey,” said Ryder, who now attends Ole Miss. “Being back here – it’s exciting to watch the new girls play and see how the team has developed as a whole… I’m excited to watch them, but in a way it’s a little sad.”
Bunsick, who now studies at McGill University, agreed with Ryder.
“It was definitely hard to walk back in here. Very nostalgic. I definitely miss playing hockey now… but it is really awesome to watch all the new people come in. [Shrewsbury looks] like a really strong team here from the beginning,” she shared.
Yet, Shrewsbury’s feel-good story was quickly jeopardized by Billerica-Chelmsford. Although the Colonials handily outshot their opponent 11-3 in the opening frame, Billerica-Chelmsford’s Kara Gambale registered the night’s first goal, putting the former-champions behind 1-0 early in the contest. Hailey Graybeal, Billerica-Chelmsford’s goalie, was sharp all night, denying several point-blank-distance Shrewsbury shots.
“We had some jitters in the first five minutes, but after that I think we put it together,” Shrewsbury Head Coach Frank Panarelli said after the game. “I think it was more like – all the captains from last season came… You could see in the first minutes, I said to them ‘You’ve got to wake up a little bit.’ The first five minutes – I thought they took it to us a little bit, and then… we started to play a little bit of our game. I think we got stronger as the game went on.”
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Panarelli noted that in the MVC/DCL, one of the state’s toughest leagues, every game is “going to be a battle.”
Shrewsbury started to produce some offense. Just four minutes after Gambale’s goal, Shrewsbury evened the score. Blaire Fay, assisted by Mia Ryder and freshman Paige O’Donnell, who earned Player of the Game for her efforts, put the Colonials on the board. The score sat at 1-1 into the third period.
And with the score knotted, another freshman stepped up. Allie Martel, who was playing in her first-ever high-school game, scored her first career goal to put Shrewsbury ahead 2-1. Martel’s goal proved to be the difference, and the Colonials played strong defense throughout the third period to take home the 2-1 victory.
“It was pretty big. I didn’t even really know what happened because everyone was so happy for me. Everyone was so excited – they made me feel really good,” Martel said of her go-ahead goal after the game.
While the freshman noted that her high-school debut was “really nerve-wracking at first,” she said that “after the first shift [she] was all settled in.”
“Everyone was really helpful, and told me ‘If you make a mistake, just get it back,’” she added.
“Two freshmen coming in and seeing significant minutes – they really stepped up. That’s all you can ask for,” Panarelli said about Martel and O’Donnell. “They both showed up, they stepped up, and they played extremely well.”
Shrewsbury has two consecutive upcoming MVC/DCL matchups. The team will travel to Tewksbury on Saturday to face Andover, and on Wednesday, the team will return to NorthStar to compete against Lincoln-Sudbury.