The Spaulding girls hockey team is back on the ice for the first time since last year’s state championship campaign ended a few days before a statewide shutdown due to Covid-19.
Physically distant training sessions make things look a bit different this winter as teams wait for approval from the state to begin full-contact practices.
Crimson Tide coach David Lawrence and his players are making it work by getting back to the basics.
Forwards and defensemen can focus on the fundamentals of passing, shooting, stick-handling and skating at the BOR. Goalies Mattie Cetin and Rayna Long are almost as busy as normal while honing their shot-blocking skills.
It’s not a perfect way to prepare before the season, especially for a team with a 22-game winning streak on the line. But there haven’t been many complaints by the Tide, who are getting along just fine.
Last year’s 4-0 championship victory over CVU gave Spaulding its first team title of any kind in a decade. The Granite City squad recorded the only perfect season by a Vermont girls hockey team. And the Tide did it one year after going 2-16-2.
Lawrence’s team outscored opponents 122-40, burying 16 playoff goals while allowing four. The Tide skated to a 7-4 quarterfinal victory over Brattleboro before coasting past Missisquoi, 5-0, in the semis.
CVU outshot Spaulding 11-8 in a scoreless first period, but Cetin (24 saves) held her ground to secure her third shutout. She finished the season with a 0.92 save percentage and a 1.68 goals-against average. Long sopped 88% of shots on target and limited opponents to an average of two goals per game.
In addition to running the table, the Division II Tide made a few statements by defeating some of the top D-I programs. They swept D-I semifinalist Harwood, skating to victories of 7-3 and 4-3. Spaulding also secured a 5-2 victory over Rice and a 3-2 win over Middlebury.
This year’s squad is learning how to play without Cami Bell, who transferred to another school after notching 56 goals and 24 assists last winter. One of the top candidates to lead the 2021 offense is sophomore Rebecca McKelvey, who finished her first varsity season with 29 goals and 16 assists. Returning juniors Zoe Tewksbury (seven goals, 32 assists) and Bria Dill (11 goals, 16 assists) also made huge contributions during the title run.
Seniors Elise Atwood, Addie Reil and Emily Wilson are all back for their fourth year on the team. Ella Pitonyak and Emily Morris round out the junior class, while Hannah King, Molly Parker and newcomer Chloe Clark give the sophomore crew even more depth. The freshmen are Corrina Moulton, Lilly Tewksbury, Ruby Harrington and Portia Berard. Brian Wilkin, Ashley Pelkey and Mike Ball are assistant coaches for the Tide, who lost Annie Duprey, Hailey Lafaille, Morgan Mast and Natalie Mattson to graduation.
Here are a dozen of questions for Lawrence, who is optimistically shooting a 10-game regular season:
TA: Do you have some memories that really stick out in your mind from the end of last season. Was it a blur right before the pandemic?
Lawrence: “It was just such a unique experience. Not only because of the whole undefeated season and winning the whole thing. But then three days after we won, everything got shut down. So the kids didn’t really get to have a big banquet. They didn’t really get to be celebrated in their own town because everything was shut down. So it was really a super unique situation where you make some history that no one’s done. And then you go through a pandemic that no one’s gone through. So it was just really strange and exciting all at once at the end: to cap it off the way we did, and then it abruptly just came to a complete stop right after the championship.”
TA: The way you capped it off, if you look at the playoffs, your closest game was actually the quarterfinal. So how nervous were you in that final game against CVU?
Lawrence: “It sounds really cliche: We just took it one game at a time. You should value the championship more, and I’m not saying we don’t. But we just try to stay the same every game and not really put the outcome before the work that has to be done. So I wouldn’t say I was nervous. I was just excited to see them try to do it. We never talked about the importance of, ‘You have to. You have to. You have to.’ Just go out and do what you know what you can do.”
TA: It was a freshman-heavy team last year. But do you think the younger girls had a sense of what a huge accomplishment it was in such a big hockey town?
Lawrence: “I think they realized it more after. We always talk about the tradition of Spaulding hockey, whether it’s boys or girls. There’s a lot of great teams from the past and there’s also a lot of pride in the program. Going through it, I think the girls were surprised at the support and just how big it got with the BOR being packed for girls hockey games. I don’t think it really hit them until after it actually happened that, ‘Wow, this is really, really big in our community.’ And the support that they got was really impressive from the entire town. So playing the actual game and doing their thing I don’t think overwhelmed them. But the environment and the result of that caught them off-guard a little bit as to just how big it really got.”
TA: Five of your players helped the soccer team win its first playoff game in eight years. Do you think that confidence has carried over to this year?
Lawrence: “I think so. They know what to expect a little bit more in terms of being in that pressure cooker. Or knowing what it takes to win. You hear a lot of people say that you have to lose a little bit before you win. And you have to learn how to win. Because they did learn and they got a taste of it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again. But it certainly gives them that confidence. And a situation that they face on the ice shouldn’t feel as overwhelming as it might had you not been there before. You should be able to control that a little bit better.”
TA: Building in to this season, was it tough for people to even find ice time the last month or so?
Lawrence: “Not really. There were some restrictions, but there’s enough rinks that were open if you’re following the rules. So kids who wanted to get on the ice could find it. It wasn’t the same experience that you would normally have. But it at least got their legs going and it got them skating and keeping their basic skills up to par.”
TA: Was there any early indication before you finally got the green light to practice?
Lawrence: “We had no idea. We were all caught off-guard as soon as the governor made the announcement. The last month or so, at least on the hockey side of things, a lot of people have been watching the press conferences every time. And my phone just started buzzing like crazy after he said that. Players and parents were texting and messaging. It was a surprise. And I think it was a surprise for even administrators — but a pleasant surprise. The kids have had so much stuff taken from them beyond their control. They seem to be the ones doing the best with the pandemic and following rules. Yet they’re the ones paying the price the most for it. So the excitement level went through the roof when they heard they could finally do something. It’s not the full practices. But we actually get to do something now.”
TA: What was the atmosphere Monday at the first practice? Overall, was it a success?
Lawrence: “It went better than I thought it would. Practices are a little bit tricky because we can’t have contact. And we can’t work on things that necessarily always translate to a game. It’s a lot of individual skill stuff. And that can get old for kids quickly, so it can be hard to keep their attention. Because they want to compete and they want to find a spot in the lineup and they just want to play games and things that actually help them more in hockey than just stick-handling through a yard sale. But the enthusiasm of just being there, you can see all the energy. And I think each day will get better and we just have to wait for the green light to get to the next step.”
TA: Are there some elements that do seem like a normal practice?
Lawrence: “You can always work on the basics, so that’s what we’re trying to do. Because you can never practice your fundamentals enough. You can always get better at passing. You can always get better at skating. You can always get better at all the little things. The challenge is that, because you can’t be in contact and competing, you can’t really apply it yet. So you can stick-handle by yourself and you can go around cones and stuff. But until you can actually compete against somebody in a smaller space, you can’t really apply any of the stuff to real game situations. It’s going to be fine for now. We can always keep working on the fundamentals. And we’re just waiting for the green light where we can actually take our practices to the next level that apply way more to the game. and actually play hockey together. But that will come.”
TA: You can still shoot, so can the goalies get some decent training?
Lawrence: “We have a goalie coach who helps us out, so they can get specific stuff off to the side when needed. And we can still do a lot of flow drills where we can get shots on the goalies. So the goalies won’t really change as much. By nature, that’s sort of an individualized position in its own little realm. They can carry on as is because they don’t have to deal with contact or stick-handling a lot. So they’ll probably actually get more shots now than when we get into the next phase when it’s team-structured and games.”
TA: How would you rate the general fitness after the long break?
Lawrence: “We looked a little out of shape. Nothing where you’re freaking out, but you can definitely see that hockey is just a different thing. You can run 10 miles a day or do your sprints all day-long when you’re training. When you get on the ice, it’s just a completely different motion and kind of cardio. And so I could definitely see that there were quite a few people tired. I asked a lot of the kids, ‘Oh, how are you feeling?’ And they said, ‘I’m pretty winded. I’m pretty gassed.’ We did adjust our tryout scenario. I told them ahead of time, ‘I’m not going to skate you into the ground like we normally do the first days. Because one, I don’t know what your fitness level is at. And two, you’ve got the masks that you’re wearing when you skate. And how you’re going to breath and deal with that may not be the same at first if you’re not used to it. So I didn’t want people sucking wind and struggling, just from the mask alone. So I’ll ease into more of the harder skating next week and just let them get their feet under them first.”
TA: Do you have some early goals for the season or hopes how things might turn out?
Lawrence: “We did a team Zoom meeting just to lay out expectations and introduce myself to some of the newer players. And we expect nothing to change, honestly. We set the bar a little ridiculously high last year. But it doesn’t mean we can’t try to get back there again. So the goal is to win as many games as possible. And hopefully win the last one. And I think the returning players expect that. If you come back after a championship season and say, ‘Well, we may not be able to do it again,’ that’s not the right message to send. The expectations are still the same. It’s just of matter of if we can actually do it.”
TA: What would you say about Elise, Addie and Emily as the three seniors?
Lawrence: “That whole senior class, those three, started playing hockey their freshman year. They showed up to tryouts — eight of them — and they’re the only three that lasted. They stuck it out. They didn’t even dress a game their freshman year. They were just learning to play. And then by their junior year, Addie was named a captain. It’s almost an impossible situation for most kids to be in that position. They’ve got kids like Cami and kids who have been playing their whole lives. It’s quite a culture shock for them. But they’re good kids and they’ve come a really long ways.”