CIAC ICE HOCKEY: From the Wallingford Hawks to a homemade rink, Sheehan’s Titans came of age together

CIAC ICE HOCKEY: From the Wallingford Hawks to a homemade rink, Sheehan’s Titans came of age together

WALLINGFORD — Jake Festa has scored the winning goal in a state championship.

So, too, has his younger brother, Luke. So have Sheehan ice hockey teammates Devin Napoli, Anthony Romano and Joey Richo.

But you won’t find a record of any such championships at Sheehan High School.

These fictitious titles reside in the minds of the Titans. They are titles won in the Festas’ backyard, in games played on their coach’s outside rink, on a patch of ice that’s been home to countless pickup games played by kids now wearing the Sheehan burgundy and gold.

Those kids will finally play for the real thing Thursday night in the CIAC Division III state championship game at Yale’s Ingalls Rink.

Sheehan (19-5-1) is on the verge of its first ice hockey state championship after an 8-2 thrashing of Daniel Hand on Monday night. In Thursday’s 7 p.m. title game, on the opposite of the Ingalls ice, will be the crosstown rival Lyman Hall Co-op, which advanced by scoring twice in the final 2:44 to beat Newington 4-3 in Monday’s second semifinal.

As for the Titans, they’ve been dreaming of this moment going back to the backyard rink built 10 years ago by Sheehan head coach Dave Festa. They’d gather mostly on off days to play games of 3-on-3 or to just fool around as teens tend to do.

“On a good day, the whole team will come over and skate,” sophomore Luke Festa said after Sheehan’s win over Hand. “(The rink) is just something we’ve had since my little brother (Max) was born.

“The whole team is pretty much a family.”

“All the kids come over in the winter and it’s just fantastic,” Dave Festa said. “It’s a cohesiveness that you can’t coach.

“We are really tight,” the coach added. “Whenever they are over at the house, my wife (Deena) is making food. The kids are just hanging out, watching the games on TV.

“When we are off the ice, it’s not ‘Coach Festa.’ It’s really just friends, and we’ve fostered a relationship (beyond coaching).”

It’s not uncommon to see as many as 15 Sheehan players mingling around the outside rink in the Festa backyard. But considering Dave Festa has mentored several Sheehan players since they first laced up their skates, it’s easy to see why these Titans feel so at home.

Dave Festa has been Sheehan’s head coach for 10 years, but he’s coached the core of this year’s Titans since they came together as young Wallingford Hawks 13 years ago.

When Jake and Luke were 5 and 3, the Festa family joined the Wallingford Hawks and its “Learn to Skate” program. Also on the ice as youngsters in the Wallingford travel hockey program were the Romano brothers, Napoli, Joe Spina and Richo, among others.

It’s a group that has been responsible for most of the Titans’ offensive production this season.

And what production Sheehan has generated. The Titans have scored 123 goals in 25 games.

Anthony Romano, who had one of two hat tricks in Monday night’s win, 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 10 games after transferring from Notre Dame-West Haven to Sheehan this season, has 19 goals in just 15 games. He notched hat tricks in the Titans’ first two Division III playoff wins.

The Festas, meanwhile, are responsible for 32 goals and 73 points. Jake has 19 goals and 20 assists, while Luke has 13 goals and 21 assists.

Richo, whose 15th goal of the season Monday night turned the momentum back toward the Titans, also has 14 assists.

Spina, a defenseman, leads the Titans with 32 checks.

“It’s absolutely fulfilling,” Dave Festa said. “You see the kids grow, on and off the ice.

“To see these kids evolve into not just hockey players, but great young men. It’s not just about hockey; it’s about life,” Dave Festa added.

With Dave Festa usually behind the bench, today’s Titans progressed through Wallingford’s youth hockey program. With a coaching resume that spans 25 years, Festa started coaching in Wallingford as soon as his sons were old enough to grab a stick.

Jake, Luke and their Sheehan teammates played on the Wallingford Hawks’ Mite, Squirt, Pee-Wee and Bantam travel teams.

Only Napoli, who learned to skate with the Festas and still lives around the corner, strayed away. Napoli left town to play for Yale Youth Hockey and for two seasons at Notre Dame-West Haven before transferring back to Sheehan as a junior this season.

Dave Festa likes to say Napoli “has come full circle” since returning to Sheehan.

“Coming back was definitely worth it; these guys are my brothers,” Napoli said. “The Romanos, I’ve played with them since I was 4. So (coming back) was nothing new. Coming into the season, we knew we had a shot at this.”

“I’ve seen these kids from Day 1,” Dave Festa said. “From pushing chairs (to stay upright) on the ice, to now getting on the ice and contributing (toward a state title). It’s really nice to see.

“This group grew up (on the ice) together and started to become relevant, and being relevant in the state is really important for Wallingford,” Dave Festa added.

Coming up two years behind his older brother Jake and his classmates, Luke Festa was part of state championship with the Wallingford Hawks’ Pee-Wee team (ages 11-12). That group, which included some players now on the Lyman Hall Co-op team, was also the runner-up at the New England Regionals.

Dave Festa’s youngest son, 11-year-old Max, is a member of Wallingford’s current Pee-Wee team that recently won the Connecticut State Tier 3 title and will play this weekend in the New England Regionals.

Also on that Pee-Wee team is the younger brother of Sheehan freshman Anthony DeFilio, whose mother is the cousin of Deena Festa. Sadly, DeFilio’s father, Scott, lost his battle with brain cancer prior to this season.

“(Scott’s death) brought the team together in unimaginable ways,” Dave Festa said. “The brotherhood is woven into the fabric of this team.”

It’s that “brotherhood” that has the Titans on the brink of their first state championship in ice hockey.

“We’ve had a goal since the beginning of the year, and that was a state championship,” Jake Festa said. “We are so close. We are a brotherhood. It’s just unbelievable how close we are and that’s what’s propelled us.

“I can call everyone in the locker room my brother — not my actual brother, but all these guys are just as close,” Jake Festa added. “It’s unbelievable, just an amazing experience.”

Win or lose, this group will write its final chapter Thursday night. What started 15 years ago inside an ice rink, was dreamed about on a backyard rink, will end on the Ingalls ice.

“It’s been a great story across the board,” Dave Festa said. “To see this group stick up for each other, through tough times, tragedy.

“It’s tough (to see this group move on),” Dave Festa added. “I’m sure my wife will shed a few tears Thursday night — win or lose.”


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