January 24, 2014

Prep Journal: Gunnery never gives up

By Arielle Aronson

After going 4-4 in December, the immediate start to 2014 was not a good one for Gunnery hockey. The Highlanders were shut out on New Year’s Day in their first game of the Watkins Tournament by an under-.500 Canterbury squad. The next day’s schedule included games against two top-notch squads in Culver Academy and Dexter, so it seemed like Gunnery would be a long-shot to win both games, never mind making it to even the third-place game.

But Gunnery hockey has a philosophy that it will not waste a single day, so the team made a commitment to each other to play the more selfless brand of hockey the coaching staff had been preaching all season.

That commitment paid off in a big way.

Gunnery went on to not only win both games that day, but also the tournament championship and the six games since then to rocket up to a 13-5-0 record. Where the Highlanders were a struggling team at the dawn of January, they are now a serious postseason contender at the end of it.

“Yes, we could have simply said, ‘Well, we lost the first game, we have two tough games tomorrow, what are the chances of even making it to the finals now?’” said Gunnery coach Chris Baudo. “But that’s just not in our DNA here. We don’t quit here. We prepare, we work, we compete and we try to do a lot of little things well to give ourselves the best chance for success. If we don’t, we’re going to make adjustments but we’re never going to waste a day. We don’t get enough time together to waste days, whether that’s practices or whether that’s game opportunities.”

In that sense, the first month of the season, despite its sub-par results, was not wasted time for Gunnery. Instead, it was an adjustment period – especially for the 14 new players joining a Highlander squad that made it to the Elite 8 semifinals last season. The entire team is made up of skill-oriented players who had always been top-six style guys and were not accustomed to having to play a gritty style of game that seems to come naturally for third- and fourth-liners.

“The fact that we get these skill-oriented guys who are more top-six guys before they get here to work hard, to compete, to finish their checks, to backcheck as hard as possible, to be selfless when you have to chip pucks deep as opposed to trying to beat the guy 1-on-1, I think that’s where you tangibly see it on the ice,” Baudo said. “They’re playing a different style than maybe they’re used to and that takes a lot of work.

“Sometimes, that means you’re giving up an opportunity where you think you can sneak behind the defensemen for a stretch pass and go in on a breakaway because you’re taking care of your own end first, but you’re believing that if you play the game the right way, those opportunities will come.”

That belief has helped Gunnery greatly in grinding out wins throughout its nine-game win streak. While the Highlanders have beaten their past seven consecutive opponents by scoring five or more goals while allowing three or fewer goals in each game, Gunnery (excepting a 7-0 win over Albany Academy) has entered the third period of each game either tied or holding on to a one-goal lead. Strong third period efforts in each game lifted the Highlanders to those semi-misleading lopsided scores.

Baudo gave all the credit to his players for that workmanship. He was especially ebullient in praise for his senior leadership, including captains Joey Fallon and Dominic Rivero, and newcomer/post-graduate goaltender Matthew Schneider.

But while Gunnery has clearly turned its season around in January, it still has many tests ahead as it attempts to qualify for the Elite 8 tournament again this season. Baudo said the key to passing those tests will be his team’s dedication to maintaining consistency while still improving.

“You have to be consistent in your approach, consistent in the way you play but not become complacent, and I think that will be a real focus of ours as we move forward,” Baudo said. “I don’t think it will take a lot because I think the guys see that there’s a great deal of potential and I think they now understand that everything has to be earned, but that will be a real focus for us as a team.”

Game of the Week

Cushing Academy at Phillips Exeter, Friday, Jan. 24 at 5 p.m.

Both the Penguins and the Big Red have consistently been amongst the best this season, but Cushing got the better of Exeter earlier this season. Exeter has not lost since then, so a win over the Penguins this time around would be a great accomplishment for the Big Red squad.

Prep Power Rankings

Check out Arielle's ranking of the top 20 prep boys teams at our prep hockey power rankings page.

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