By Kirk Luedeke
SALEM, N.H.— Westminster School and Dexter School won the NEPSIHA large and small school tournaments on Sunday, kicking off a full day of hockey.
Dexter School, the only team of six to return to the finals in the three different categories from 2010, avenged a double overtime loss to Kimball Union Academy a year ago with an 8-1 thrashing of New Hampton School in the day’s first game. Standouts from the game included leading scorer Nick Bligh (Milton, Mass.) and senior goaltender Kevin Green (Weymouth, Mass.), who posted a .930 save percentage in his final prep season.
Head coach Dan Donato (Dedham, Mass.) who came to Brookline from Salisbury School five years ago to build Dexter’s hockey program from scratch, has brought his team to the tournament in each of the last three years, losing in the semis in 2009 before taking KUA to the limit in 2010.
“We were just so excited to get back to the championship,” Donato told hockeyjournal.com after his team’s resounding victory. “We faced a great KUA team last year and ended up on the short end of it, but this year we found a way to get it done.”
Dexter took it to NHS from the drop of the puck, scoring just 24 seconds into it when captain Pat Curtis (Ashland, Mass.) swatted a Bligh rebound home. Dexter had a 2-1 lead after the first period, but blew things open in the second, up 5-1 going into the final frame.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Green said afterward. “All the guys played great, every single one of them. We had an awesome time; (we) started a little rough this season, but built the team chemistry as we went along and it was worth it in the end.”
Green, who was sensational in that loss from a year ago, wasn’t tested as much by NHS, this time but was highly impressive by making some tough saves look routine while preventing the Huskies from gaining any kind of positive momentum.
Dexter came at their opponent in waves, and although NHS goaltender Max Schwan held down the fort early, the relentless offensive pressure got to him in the second. After losing such a tough game the year before, the Dexter players made it clear they would not be denied a second time.
“It was great to come back,” said Bligh, who had four assists on the day to follow up a two-goal performance in the semi-final win over Tilton. “We were fired up just to get back, to get a second chance at winning a championship. We really worked hard this year and kept that in the back of our minds, and it kept us motivated.”
Also impressive in the victory was the play of defenseman Jared Wiedemann (Pembroke, Mass.) who was part of the painful loss to KUA, but who played with poise and confidence. His skating skills and footwork were noticeably improved from a year ago, and he was a defensive anchor for his team.
“Jared’s character is second to none (to) any kid I’ve coached,” said Donato of his senior assistant captain. “In the back of my head, I knew last year he had a tough game in this game, but I thought he played excellent all weekend. You really pull for a kid that may have had a tough day a year ago and then has a great day this year.”
Overall, it was a dominant performance from a team that will lose a lot of graduating seniors, but who also has plenty of returning talent including Bligh and skilled offensive defenseman Charlie Donners (Norwood, Mass.)
“We’re proud of these guys,” Donato said. “We have just a tremendous character senior class of leadership. We lost some key components of that (2010) team; Cam Darcy to the National Team. We knew everyone was going to have to do their part to make this happen, so we’re very excited.”
Donato also recognized Green’s role in getting Dexter to the finals in consecutive years.
“The thing that’s been great about Kevin is the last two years in the playoffs, he’s really upped his game,” he said.
Green also credited his coach with having a major influence on his own success and that of the team.
“Coach Donato makes sure you’re a great guy in and out of school,” he said. “On the ice, off the ice- be accountable, and take advantage of every moment you have. You’re not going to be in a lot of championships every single year. We got lucky to go back-to-back, so this year we were glad to take it.
“He’s proud of us and we’re proud of him,” said Green.
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Westminster won the Martin/Earl large school tournament much the way they performed in the regular season: through a team-oriented, all-for-one approach that saw them sacrifice individual stardom in order to knock off Brunswick School, Belmont Hill and Governor’s Academy in the final contest.
“I thought our guys played hard certainly today and yesterday against Belmont Hill and against Brunswick in the first round,” Westminster head coach Tim Joncas (Branford, Conn.) told hockeyjournal.com after his team’s 4-2 victory. “They were obviously gearing up for the top-eight tournament and I thought we had a real good season to get in there.
“I thought they were fired up to be in this tournament, the large school tournament, which is named for Tom Earl, former coach at Westminster School, so I think they were fired up to compete for him and bring this trophy home.”
Westminster got real solid goaltending from junior Patrick Spano in the wins over Belmont Hill and Governor’s, and balanced scoring from across the lineup to capture the championship against some quality competition.
“I’m just really proud of all four lines,” Joncas, in his fourth year behind his alma mater’s bench, said. “They played hard today. I thought we executed the gameplan as well as we possibly could in terms of getting pucks and bodies to the net and keeping pucks deep and trying to outwork them down low.
“Hat’s off to Governor’s- they’ve got a good squad there and I’m sure they’ll be back in this situation next year as well. It was just an all-around great weekend.”
Forward David Hallisey (Wethersfield, Conn.) scored a pair of goals and added an assist in Westminster’s 3-1 semi-final win over Belmont Hill, which featured 28-goal scorer Jimmy Vesey (North Reading, Mass.), but could not get anything going against Spano after taking an early lead.
Others like Luke Laszkiewicz, Tim Acker, Jim Crow and Andy Michailidis (Stamford, Conn.) generated the offense needed in the final game to secure the Martin/Earl title.
“It’s obviously the best way we could go out,” senior forward Tom McKeown (Longmeadow, Mass.) said afterward. “The opportunity we were given with the large school tournament, we just wanted to make the most of it and win three games in a row. That’s what we did and we couldn’t ask for more.”
McKeown and his teammates embodied the kind of perfect chemistry that saw Westminster pull together at the right time and play the kind of winning hockey it takes to go the distance.
“It’s hard to pick one or two guys,” Joncas said when asked to identify some of the key players behind the championship. “We don’t have that kind of one or two guy (dynamic); it’s a complete team effort. I think that’s allowed us to have the kind of success we’ve had. And to be 21-6-2 in New England at the season, that’s a pretty big accomplishment coming out of the Founder’s League.”
While Joncas acknowledged it was a bittersweet moment because his squad is losing a good number of seniors to graduation this spring, he was encouraged at the return next season Spano, Hallisey, Crow, Emilio Audi and all the other underclassmen who were a key part of the championship run.