NEW HAVEN — Wallingford is home to the two best Division III ice hockey teams in the state for the 2018-19 season. But the town is big enough for only one state champion.
Will it be Sheehan High School?
Will it be the Lyman Hall Co-op team?
We’ll find out Thursday night when the two collide at Yale’s Ingalls Rink in the CIAC Division III championship game at 7 p.m.
The winner will capture Wallingford’s first state high school championship in ice hockey.
The loser? Well, let’s just say it’s going to be a long offseason.
“It’s unbelievable, just crazy,” Co-op senior captain Kyle Roberts said. “We kind of knew we were the top two contenders all year, but for it to be happening is kind of unreal.
“Whatever team we faced in the finals was going to be a great team, but the whole rivalry adds a little bit more. It would be huge to beat Sheehan (for a state title).”
Those words come from a player who doesn’t even live in Wallingford. Roberts goes to Coginchaug High School, which along with Haddam-Killingworth makes up the Lyman Hall Co-op squad.
But Roberts and his teammates who reside outside Wallingford understand the magnitude of the matchup.
“It doesn’t get any bigger, even for Coginchaug kids like me. It huge for us because of the rivalry (with Sheehan),” said Michael O’Toole, who scored Lyman Hall’s game-winning goal Monday night in a 4-3 semifinal win over Newington.
“Honestly, on this team, I feel the full effect even though I don’t live in Wallingford. I feel like part of Wallingford when I play with (this team) against Sheehan. I get it,” O’Toole added. “Obviously, I don’t have that personal experience, but I can feel it. I really do.”
Anyone who makes the trek to Yale’s Ingalls Rink will understand just how big Thursday night's all-Wallingford final is to not just the schools, but the community. Wallingford, home to the Wallingford Hawks, the second-oldest youth hockey organization in the country, loves its hockey, and two crazy fan bases separated by five miles will pack cars, vans and busses for a 20-minute ride down I-91.
One will return home as state champion — a first for either team. Neither has appeared in a state hockey final before.
“The support from Wallingford, not just Sheehan and its students and the administration, but even the youth hockey programs, has been tremendous,” said Sheehan head coach Dave Festa. “It will be great to see the (Lyman Hall) kids who went through the same programs as us. A lot of them grew up together.”
No. 4 seed Sheehan (19-5-1) made to the title game after routing top-seeded Hand 8-2 on Monday night at Ingalls right before No. 2 LH (17-7-0) took the ice and rallied to beat the No. 3 Newington Co-op in the closing minutes.
A year ago, it was a different story. Both the Titans and Trojans fell in the Division III quarterfinals. Sheehan lost to the eventual Division III state champion Eastern CT Eagles 3-0, while LH lost to runner-up Tri-Town 5-1.
“Last year sucked. It really sucked losing,” Sheehan senior Jake Festa said. “All the returning players had that feeling that we were so close last year, and this year we were determined to keep it going.
“We’ve had a goal since the beginning of the year and that was a state championship,” he added. “Whoever we play, know that we’re coming. The West Side (of Wallingford) is the best side.”
While Jake Festa didn’t call out the Trojans directly — his statements came prior to Lyman Hall’s last-minute win over Newington — his final words spoke volumes when it comes to the stakes of Thursday’s title game.
As rivalries go, they don’t get any bigger on the ice than Sheehan-LH. This will be the third meeting this season between the teams.
They split their regular-season games. Co-op goalie Andrew Sacco handed the Titans their lone shutout loss of the year, 3-0, on Jan. 26 at Wesleyan. Goalie Tyler Robertson and the Titans won the second matchup, 5-1, on Feb. 16 at Northford Ice Pavilion.
“We dominated the first game and they dominated the second game; I think everyone wanted to see a third game,” LH coach Rich Minnix said. “For it to be an all-Wallingford final, with our Coginchaug and H-K friends with us, it’ll be a great time.
“The boys aren’t satisfied to make the trip here,” Minnix added. “We came here with one goal and that was to raise a championship. We’ll see what happens.”
It was actually Sheehan’s loss to LH on Jan. 26 that led to its late-season success. The Titans have won 10 of 11 games since losing that night at Wesleyan to the Trojans.
Sheehan’s only loss was to Hand in the regular season. Sheehan has since beaten Hand twice since — in the SCC semifinals and then in the state semifinals on Monday night.
“After that loss to Lyman Hall, we really regrouped,” Dave Festa said. “We refocused our efforts.”
And how. Sheehan has not only made winning a habit, it enters the title game on a scoring spree. The Titans have found the back of the net 26 times in three state playoff games.
Devin Napoli notched hat tricks in the Titans’ first two state tourney wins over Northeastern and JBWA, while Anthony Romano and Jake Festa both had three goals in Sheehan’s semifinal win over Hand.
Sheehan scored 10 goals in winning the SCC Tournament title game against JBWA and, for the season, has lit the lamp 123 times in 25 games.
Romano leads the Titans with 26 goals and 61 points. His brother Joe has 19 goals and 22 assists.
Napoli, who was forced to sit out the first 10 games this season after transferring from Notre Dame-West Haven to Sheehan, certainly has been an offensive catalyst. The junior has scored 19 goals in just 15 games.
“The first 10 games were tough on me,” Napoli said. “Sitting on the sidelines, I would have done anything to get out there. But now, everything is clicking for us. We are finding the back of the net very easily.
“We have great chemistry and now we are in the championship,” Napoli continued. “It’s something you really can’t put into words. Everyone has worked so hard. Winning the state championship wasn’t only a goal at the beginning of the season, but it’s been a goal since you come in as a freshman.”
Jake Festa has played for his father since his freshman season. He and his younger brother Luke, a sophomore, are responsible for 32 goals and 73 points this season. Joey Richo, another sophomore, scored his 15th goal of the season in Monday night’s win.
“We know (Sheehan) is a really strong team and have a really strong offense,” said Roberts, who is a 200-point career scorer in his own right. “They have speed and we just have to make sure we play our game, grind it out, play a solid defensive game.”
LH hasn’t exactly struggled offensively. The Trojans have 111 goals in 24 games and won five of their past six.
The Trojans are led by Roberts’ 32 goals and 74 points, while Matt Pettit has 26 goals and 61 points. It was Pettit’s power-play goal that tied Newington with 2:44 to play and set up LH’s dramatic win.
Pettit scored twice in Monday’s win, while Roberts had a pair of assists.
Defensively, both goalies have been solid in net. Sacco allowed just one goal in the state tournament heading into the semifinals, while Robertson is playing the best hockey of his four-year career as a starter in leading the Titans to the brink of a state title.
“Obviously, you win championships from the net out,” Dave Festa said. “(Tyler’s) puck control has been fantastic. From my perspective from the bench, I don’t see anyone in the state playing better than (Tyler) right now.”
And with one more win, Festa can say the same thing about his Sheehan team.
Then again, Minnix could say the same thing Thursday night.
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