WALLINGFORD — They were big fish on a big frozen pond.
They lit the lamp, often at each other’s expense, or, at the other end of the ice, stymied each other’s attack.
Whether from Cheshire or Lyman Hall or Sheehan, the area’s top hockey players of 2021 made SCC/SWC Division II the unpredictable rink race it was expected to be.
We’ve put a dozen on the All-Record-Journal Team. We wanted to put more. It was that good a season.
One player became the first 200-point scorer in his school’s history.
Another was deemed the top player in SCC/SWC Division II. (We were also home to the league’s top coach.)
The firepower was remarkable: 161 area goals were scored and six area forwards were named All-State.
There was some strong defensemen in the mix, plus a goaltender who no doubt has some area players still talking about the night he stood on his head to beat them.
Lace up the skates, boys, and look lively. We’re suiting you up and juggling the lines. The possibilities are mind-boggling.Cheshire
The Rams (5-6) had the most topsy-turvy season among the locals. They lost their first three games, went into quarantine, came out, lost twice more, then reeled off five straight wins to reach the SCC/SWC Division II championship game.
They got there at Lyman Hall’s expense, holding on in a 4-3 semifinal thriller. A 3-0 loss to North Haven was awaiting in the final.
Coach Anthony Giusto’s group was led by senior captains Niklas Vasiljevs and Thor Novicelli.
What’s in a name? Quite a bit.
Vasiljevs, the son of former pro player Herbert Vasiljevs, was named to the All-State Division II First Team and All-SCC/SWC Division II Second Team after scoring seven goals and assisting on 13. Novicelli brought the hammer down with five goals, 10 assists and some fine checking.
”Thor is an all-around great player,” Giusto noted. “He mixes offensive ability with great defensive awareness and plays a very tough style of hockey.”
Novicelli won Cheshire’s Hobey Baker Character Award. Vasiljevs is on his way to junior hockey with the New Hampshire Avalanche.
“Nik is a dynamic player with great speed and offensive ability,” Giusto said. “He was a two-year captain and leader on and off the ice.”Lyman Hall
Coach Dave Sagnella said in preseason that his team, back on its own after the co-op with Coginchaug and Haddam-Killingworth was dissolved, would surprise some folks.
That indeed came to pass. The Trojans went 9-2 in the regular season, earned the top seed in the SCC/SWC Division II Tournament and won an epic 5-4 quarterfinal against Branford before falling 4-3 to Cheshire in the semis.
Sagnella also said senior captain Aidan Weir, dubbed the human “Energizer Bunny,” would be the heart and soul of the club.
That, too, proved true. Weir set the tone for a team that not only won 10 games, but the SCC/SWC Division II Sportsmanship Award as well.
Individually, Weir was named to the All-State and All-SCC/SWC Division II First Teams. He scored seven goals, assisted on nine and earned Lyman Hall’s Hobey Baker Award.
“He doesn’t put up the numbers, and I’m OK with that. It’s the stuff you do on and off the ice, and what you do to make people better,” Sagella remarked. “Weir brought the intensity. He always wanted to know what he could do better and what the team could do better. He was not afraid to speak his mind, and that’s what it’s all about: communication.”
The Trojans scored 54 goals, led by junior Jack Roberts and senior Tommy Ralston. From Roberts, it was expected. For Ralston, not necessarily so.
Roberts, a proven scorer since his freshman year, collected 12 goals and 13 assists this season.
He thrived alongside Weir, which was a new combination. After being something of a supporting player in years past to his older brother Kyle Roberts and 150-point career man Matt Pettit, Jack Roberts stepped into the limelight as a junior and earned All-State Division II Second Team designation.
“Jack picked up the slack,” Sagnella said. “The first year he was with his brother and Matt Pettit, and last year he was with Pettit, so he always had that one go-to guy. This year, he was that guy.”
Ralston lit the lamp 11 times and added nine assists. He often delivered crucial goals, including the game-winner in the quarterfinals against Branford.
“He was the best player on the ice that day and, without him, we weren’t winning that game,” Sagnella said.
While always a solid player, Ralston enjoyed a true breakout season in 2021.
“He was a great surprise,” said Sagnella. “He did everything we asked him. I was throwing him out there with random people. He was that guy. We didn’t know we were going to get that much production out of him, so it was a pleasant surprise and one we’re very grateful for.”
Sagnella speaks highly of his players’ commitment to team. All-RJ selection Kevin Stoddard was the embodiment of that. The senior forward collected three goals and six assists, and would also take shifts on defense when that was needed.
“He’d go back and do his job,” Sagnella said. “He got some good goals for us, some realy big goals. He’s a grinder; he always works hard. He might not do the prettiest things, but he gets the job done.”
This year’s All-RJ goalie? Lyman Hall’s Brendan Reddington.
When the season began, he and fellow senior Colin Stoddard, neither with much experience, were expected to rotate until someone got the hot hand.Instead, Colin Stoddard got hurt in his first start and everything fell to Reddington.
He responded a 9-2 record, a 2.81 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage.
Reddington’s best game was against Sheehan on Feb. 27. The Titans came in undefeated and were utterly flummoxed by Reddington, who made a number of diving saves, often in quick succession.
“That Sheehan game, those acrobatic saves were unbelievable,” Sagnella remarked. “I’ve got to be honest, it’s a little shameful he didn’t make All-SCC/SWC and All-State. I know there are a lot of great goalies out there, but I think what he did for Lyman Hall this year was pretty remarkable.”
The 3-2 victory over Sheehan, though quickly answered 4-2 by the Titans two nights later, proved the Trojans were indeed players in SCC/SWC Division II. Sagnella was eventually named the league’s Coach of the Year.
“That’s a full team award and I am thankful that I had a group of players that wanted to get better and bought in to everything the staff was preaching,” Sagnella said. “I could not have asked for a better group of kids.”Sheehan
The Titans have been winning games and scoring goals in such astronomical bunches for so long that it’s hard to believe the run for the seniors, some of whom were starring as freshman, has come to an end.
And without a state title.
Thanks to the pandemic, that couldn’t be helped. The departing Titans, however, can take pride in three SCC/SWC Division III championships, an appearance in the 2019 CIAC Division III state final and an overall four-year record of 68-15-2.
They were the Division III No. 1 seed in last year’s canceled state tournament. They would have been the No. 1 seed again this year.
For the 2021 regular season, the Titans asked to move up the SCC/SWC ladder and
proved what everyone already knew. They could more than just hang in Division II. Sheehan went 11-1 before being bumped 3-2 by eventual conference champ North Haven in the semifinals.
“Going into the SCC Division II bracket was definitely a good choice for us; it showcased our team,” said Sheehan coach Dave Festa. “We felt that we could compete and really stepped up to the challenge this year.
“Being able to compete there was a good prize for us. It got us on the map in SCC Division II and across the state as well.”
Ranked in the GameTime CT media poll for a good portion of the season, the Titans were fueled by a high-octane offense that averaged 5.6 goals a game led by a No. 1 line that combined for 99 points.
Sheehan also had an excellent defense, anchored by juniors James Stratton and Brendan Hilinski. Both are All-RJ selections.
“The two of them really elevated their game going into the season, doing a lot of off-ice work,” Festa said. “Their confidence with the puck, you could just see it. They matured through the year and putting them out there in key situations was a no-brainer.”
Sheehan’s offense, meanwhile, was so potent that the No. 2 line of Joe Richo, Anthony DeFilio and Dylan Hennessey would have been the No. 1 on most teams.
Sheehan’s No. 1 line was peerless: Luke Festa and fellow seniors Anthony Romano and Joe Romano.
Festa, with a team-high 20 goals and 16 assists, was the SCC/SWC Division II Player of the Year. In one outburst, Festa scored four times in the SCC/SWC quarterfinals against Amity.
Anthony Romano assisted Festa on one of those goals that day. With the assist, Romano became the first 200-point man in Sheehan hockey history.
He finished with 200 on the nose: 82 goals and 118 assists after collecting 10 goals and 24 assists this season.
His twin brother wasn’t too far off the pace. Joe Romano, with 16 goals and 13 assists this year, nearly had 100 goals for his career, finishing with 98.
Add in his 73 assists and Joe Romano had 171 career points.
Add in Luke Festa’s 137 points (55 G, 82 A) and Sheehan’s Big 3 tallied 508 points in its illustrious run.
That’s an average of 5.87 points a game.
“When I look at those numbers, that is staggering,” said Coach Festa. “I don't know when we will see that again.”
Luke Festa and Anthony were named to both the All-State Division III and All-SCC/SWC Division II First Teams. Joe Romano was All-State Division III and All-SCC/SWC Division II Second Team.
Anthony Romano won Sheehan’s Hobey Baker.
“It really was knowing where each other were and having the confidence the other one was getting them the puck,” Coach Festa said. “Luke really fit into the puzzle and completed that trio.”