CHESHIRE — The Cheshire Rams’ hockey season ended at 9-10-2 with a hard-fought 4-1 loss to Amity in the first round of the Division II state tournament on Tuesday at Bennett Rink in West Haven.
“It’s always tough ending the season,” Cheshire coach Anthony Giusto said the following afternoon. “On that bus ride home, you think about everything, not just that one game. You think about day one and where you’ve come over these last three and half months, and it’s always tough wrapping up your season.”
Cheshire started the year back on Dec. 16 with a 6-3 win over Conard. The Rams went on to win their first three games before their scoring woes caught up with them and they dropped four in a row.
Of those opening three wins, each came against teams that qualified for states and won first-round matchups: Conard, Glastonbury and the Lyman Hall Co-op.
“In the beginning, our record was better than we thought it would be,” said Giusto. “In the middle of the year, when we went on that four- or five-game losing streak, our record was worse than it should’ve been.”
The Rams graduate five seniors: goalie Anthony Vignola, defenseman Sawyer Hackett, and forwards Kyle Letourneau, Jared Purslow, and Liam Killea.
“I feel sad for the seniors who this was their last season and they went out on a note like that,” said Giusto.
Killea led the Rams in scoring with 17 points. Letourneau had 15, with two game-winning goals in overtime. Purslow rounded out the senior forwards with nine points.
“Letourneau went from being a fourth-line kid as a junior to a top line kid and one of our leading scorers this year,” said Giusto.
The loss of Hackett on the blue line is significant. Hackett only contributed two points on the season, but his intelligence and hockey awareness with and without the puck helped command the Rams on the back end. Hackett was also fearless in the corners, fighting and digging for pucks in his own zone, and trying to commandeer the breakout.
In net, Vignola will be a loss. The only senior goalie entering the season, it was Vignola’s net to lose and he fought for his time all year. Finishing with a 5-4-1 record, a .972 save percentage and a 1.90 goals-against average, Vignola was certainly not a slouch back there.
What Vignola also brought was a senior leadership example. Giusto used him to show that hard work pays off, and because Vignola proved to be working for his time, he got it.
Some of Vignola’s highlights from the season were a 2-2 tie with the offensive juggernaut that is Farmington Valley and a 1-0 overtime win at South Windsor.
The graduating crew is small. Just five guys will be out of Rams’ sweaters come November, proving how youthful this Cheshire team was. Juniors and sophomores were given significant minutes, making the future of Cheshire hockey, all that more exciting.
“It was definitely a season of ups and downs, and it goes back to our very first interview when I said it was going to be a development year,” said Giusto. “We’re going to learn a lot of things about ourselves this year and we did.”
The sophomore and junior crew for Giusto learned the amount of work it is going to take to generate offense and score goals, according to Giusto. The young guys learned that it wasn’t about just shooting the puck on net, but getting in prime scoring situations and taking advantage of bounces.
“I take this season as a lot of lessons learned,” said Giusto.
Giusto also noted the difference in this season’s locker room compared to the past. Usually, the Rams have strong, large leadership groups. This season’s senior group was outweighed by the freshmen.
“Those guys had to learn what it takes to get ready for games and I don’t think we always did that,” said Giusto.
Players like Charlie Pettit and Matt Vendetto, both sophomores, and Joey Deko, a freshman, are a few examples from this season of players who provided valuable minutes as underclassmen and really showed promise in their first full seasons as varsity players.
“There were a lot of pleasant surprises this year,” said Giusto. “It was nice to have other guys step in and contribute, and it is only going to help us for the future.”
Cheshire’s coaching staff has high expectations for the returning group. With goalie Nick Maringola, Vendetto and Pettit all getting valuable minutes, and juniors Ben O’Connor, Evan Veivia and James Illnicki all taking up leadership roles, a lot of boxes are already checked for next season.
“That was a big message to the team in the locker room,” said Giusto. “We used that youthfulness and that term developmental this season, but you only get to use it for a short time. It changes from being young to being experienced, all over one year, and now the expectation changes and what these kids do going into the spring and summer will definitely go a long way.”
Giusto noted the opening night win over Conard as a highlight on the season, as well as beating Glastonbury for the first time in Cheshire history. Two overtime victories on the road, one over New Milford and one over South Windsor, also ranked on the list.
“There were definitely a lot of highs to the season,” said Giusto. “We had a lot of highs and a lot of lows and good teams stay consistent all year. They don’t have those real high highs and those real low lows. You really want to maintain that middle level, where you’re playing consistent hockey all year.”
With all of that being said, there is now only one message Giusto has for his Rams.
“Now you see what it takes. Now you see the physical play in front of the net it takes to score goals. Now you see these what it takes these guys putting up 70-75 points. You see how hard they compete and how hard they work to put themselves in positions to score goals.”