May 24, 2014

KUA savors 2nd Piatelli/Simmons title in 3 seasons

By Arielle Aronson

Senior goalie Paul Leger solidified Kimball Union in the crease this season. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

It didn’t take Tim Whitehead long to find success at the prep hockey level. In his first season at the helm of the Kimball Union hockey program, the former University of Maine bench boss guided the Wildcats to their second Piatelli/Simmons Small School Championship in three years.

The Wildcats had to beat the best to claim the title, and they did so in decisive fashion, downing No. 1 seed Dexter, 5-1. 

The game was a close one until the third period, when KUA’s Bobby Hall (Westwood, Mass.) and Tyler Bird (Andover, Mass.) scored 13 seconds apart to put the Wildcats up, 4-0, with 7:24 left to play. Kimball Union (26-6-5) looked strong throughout in all three zones, as it managed to clog the neutral zone and play the tight defense necessary to keep a high-powered Dexter offense off the scoreboard until late in the game.

“It starts with Paul Leger in the net and then just comes right out from there,” Whitehead said of his team’s defensive strategy. “It was a real team effort, good team defense and we were able to get a couple goals to get some separation, which was important.”

Leger, a senior, was one of the few familiar faces from recent Wildcat teams. KUA lost 16 of its 24 players from last season to graduation, but despite the large turnover and new coach this year, it seemed early on that KUA could contend for an Elite 8 spot thanks to its 12-1-3 start. But as the calendar turned from December to January, the Wildcats began to struggle, and their Elite 8 hopes were derailed by a 4-5-1 month of January.

KUA proved it has a high learning curve, however, and went undefeated through February to earn a third consecutive Lakes Region Tournament championship and secure a spot as the second seed in the Piatelli/Simmons tournament.

In the quarterfinals, the Wildcats came from behind against No. 7 Millbrook, which scored four unanswered goals to jump out to a 4-2 lead halfway through the game. But Bird scored twice to knot the score at 4-4, and postgrad forward Bill Young potted the game-winner for KUA in overtime. KUA’s 4-3 semifinal win over No. 6 Brooks was another nailbiter, as Bird came through with the game-winner with a little over two minutes left in regulation.

And while this year’s KUA squad was not as highly favored entering the postseason as it was in some of the past seasons, the championship was just as sweet.

“It was a lot of new faces, a new coach, the whole thing,” Whitehead said. “It was a process for sure. But it was a real group effort, so I’m just real happy for the guys and I’m proud of them.”

Twitter: @aharonson28