CHESHIRE — The Lyman Hall Co-Op and Sheehan hockey teams played for the Division III state championship last season.
This season, Cheshire goalie Nicholas Maringola has taken each team’s best shots and beaten them both. It’s one reason why the Rams, off to a 4-1 start, are a legitimate contender to win a Division II state title on the ice this season.
The Wallingford teams combined to out-shoot Cheshire 99-40 in late December. No matter, as long as Maringola was in net.
Maringola’s most recent outing was a career-best, 48-save effort against Sheehan Monday night, when Cheshire handed the Titans their first loss of the season, 5-4. On Dec. 21, Maringola stopped 45 Lyman Hall shots in a 3-2 victory.
“We’ve said all along that goaltending is going to carry this team, and with a couple of wins like that, he carried our team,” Cheshire head coach Anthony Giusto said.
“We knew coming in, he was going to be the backbone of the team,” Giusto added. “Last year, his numbers were fantastic. This year, going into the season, we told him, ‘You can’t be worried about your numbers; you are going to see 40 or 50 shots; you just have to beat the other goalie by one.’ And he’s done that four out of five games so far.”
Maringola allowed just over 1½ goals a game as a junior. His stellar season was rewarded with several individual awards, including first team All-SCC, All-State and All-Record-Journal selections.
“I want to make saves for my team,” the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Maringola said. “I want to help them. I want to be as big a part of a win as I can be.
“Almost 50 shots may be a little much, but whatever it takes, if it means a team win, I’ll take it.”
With Maringola in net last season, the Rams were a defensive juggernaut. But unlike this season, Cheshire went into the 2018-19 campaign knowing it had defensemen to make plays before Maringola was required to stop the puck.
“As much as I’d like to have those stats that I had last year — and it was great to be All-State and whatever — what I really want is to get to Yale,” said Maringola, referencing Ingalls Rink, the site of the state semifinals and championship games. “That’s what I want to close out my high school career with.
“That’s our team goal and I’m good with jumping on that.”
Getting to Yale: Ah, yes, that’s every high school hockey player’s dream.
Cheshire, however, wasn’t one of the four Division II teams to skate on Ingalls ice last season.
Cheshire’s defense carried it only so far. The Rams fell short of their team goal of reaching Yale, losing to Glastonbury in the Division II quarterfinals, 5-2. The five goals were the most Cheshire surrendered in a 16-5-1 season.
Senior leaders from last season’s blue line — James Ilnicki, Ben O’Connor and Kyle Sheehan — have graduated. They’ve been replaced by inexperienced players this season, and returning senior defensemen like Lucca Soderlund and Scott Heseltine aren’t expected to dominate like those before them.
It’s also nice knowing Maringola has their backs.
“We just have to make it as easy on him as possible,” said Heseltime, who saw some action as a forward last season before being switched to defense this season. “We just have to do our jobs to win games.
“I think we will improve as a defense. We have some kids who are just now getting varsity time. As they get more experience, they’ll definitely get better.”
With his defensemen still working out some kinks, Giusto has turned to playing a more passive zone-oriented defense early in the season. He can because Maringola is the Rams’ last line of defense.
“The shot totals are a little blown up because we let them take a lot of shots knowing Nick is going to make those saves,” Giusto said. “If we give up shots from the outside, he is going to make those saves.
“Nick is a steadying presence,” Giusto added. “Knowing he’s back there, we can afford a few mistakes from our inexperienced defensemen. Having a kid like that back there, he gives us a chance to win.”
Maringola and the Rams have already avenged the Glastonbury loss. Maringola made 32 saves when Cheshire beat the Tomahawks 3-2 on Dec. 23.
In Cheshire’s 7-4 season-opening win over Conard, Maringola had 20 saves. In Cheshire’s lone loss, 3-2 to Watertown-Pomperaug this past Saturday, Maringola made 26 saves.
While the defensemen don’t have the varsity experience their predecessors possessed, Cheshire does return four of its top six scoring forwards.
Maringola has noticed Cheshire’s different style on both offense and defense.
“It is different, but we knew that coming in,” Maringola said of the players in front of him. “The guys work hard in practice and in games, and that all I ask of them. They have really stepped up.”
Led by the all-junior combination of Niklas Vasiljevs, Thor Novicelli and Aidan Gaudet, the Rams are scoring a lot more. They’ve got 20 goals through five games.
“Last year, I knew I had to keep the score low because we really didn’t score too much,” Maringola added. “This year, we can score very well. I know as long as I can beat the other goalie, we’ll be fine.”