ICE HOCKEY: One hot hand & two would-be Cinderellas as tourney field is set

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A trio of area hockey teams — Cheshire, Sheehan and the Southington Co-op — will take the ice in the state tournament next week.

Cheshire, the No. 3 team in Division II, is the best title hope. The Rams (14-6-0) ride into the postseason having won 10 of their last 11.

Sheehan (6-12-2) and Southington-Coginchaug-Westbrook (6-14-0) will have to make Cinderella runs. Both are No. 16 seeds — the Titans in Division II and the Blue Knights in D-III.

Southington opens the local show on Monday at 6 p.m. against No. 1 Masuk (17-1-2) at the Sports Center of CT in Shelton.

Cheshire and Sheehan follow on Tuesday. The Rams host No. 14 Trumbull (9-11-0) in a 3:45 matinee at Lou Astorino Rink, while the Titans head to the Northford Ice Pavilion to face No.1 North Haven (18-2-0) at 7:30.

The Rams have been riding a hot goalie in senior Jack Falk and have shored up the defense in the second half of the season to go along with four prolific scorers. Their current 10-1 run including a 3-0 win at Trumbull on Feb. 4.

“We’ve been talking for the last month or so about making a run,” Cheshire coach Anthony Giusto said Friday shortly after tournament pairings were released. “We like the way we are playing right now and between the offense we have been getting, the defensive structure and the goaltending, we are playing well.

“In the 12 years I’ve been at Cheshire, we have never made the Final Four,” Giusto added. “We are hoping to change that this year.”

Cheshire entered the season with inexperience on defense and in goal and, early on, were giving up five goals per game. Nine games in, in the wake of a 6-4 loss to North Haven, the Rams stood at 4-5.

Around tha ttime the Rams made adjustments and Falk emerged as Cheshire’s No. 1 goalie. The team has been nearly unstoppable ever since, suffering only a 5-4 loss at Farmington Valley on Feb. 11.

The offensive firepower has been there all season, led by senior Will Gaudet (41 points), juniors Evan Vasiljevs (38) and Biagio Pepe (37), and senior Rocco Ocone-Krause (35).

Aiden Larke was moved from forward to defense in the recent hot stretch to help solidify the blue line along with fellow senior Gabriel Magriz.

Freshmen Michael Bulger and Liam O'Dea have also been on the backline for Cheshire along with Lukas Sargolini, a senior who can play all over the ice.

Falk has two shutouts in the 11-game stretch as starter: the 3-0 win at Trumbull on Feb. 4 and a 6-0 romp at South Windsor on Feb. 20.

Falk and junior Ginny Curello were splitting time through the first half of the season. Curello was sidelined with a concussion following the Sheehan game, a 3-2 win on Jan. 28, and Falk has been the full-time keeper ever since.

As far as Trumbull goes, Giusto said the Golden Eagles are much better than their 9-11 record.

“They are a solid team and play a tough schedule,” Giusto said. “They had five or six losses to Division I opponents. We played well against them, but we are going to have to play solid against them to win.”

Next up for Cheshire would be No. 6 Branford or No. 11 South Windsor in the quarterfinals. The Rams beat both during the regular season. 

Also in Division II, the No. 16 Sheehan Titans must tangle with a North Haven team that just beat them 3-0 in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

Despite finishing No. 17 in the D-II rankings, the Titans earned a berth after Amity (9-11) was ruled ineligible due to excessive major penalties and misconducts.

Sheehan coach Dave Festa and the Titans got the official word Friday morning.

“We knew we had the potential to be in,” Festa said. “Once you get in anything can happen.

“It was nice to hear we got in,” Festa added. “We’ve had our battles this year and were in a lot of tight games. A few bounces here and there and outcomes could have changed.”

Festa termed 2022-23 an “almost” season for the Titans. Of their 12 losses, six were by one goal.

“We lost a few games in OT and we couldn’t catch a break; we gave some of the top teams in the state a bit of a scare,” Festa said. “It was the ‘almost’ or ‘could have been’ type of season. Our guys have worked so hard in practice, but its tough having such a short bench.”

Sheehan has gone with 12 skaters and two goalies for the bulk of the year. In light of those low numbers, Festa said, a co-op has been talked about.

“It’s something that needs to be assessed; there is a need to investigate it pretty deeply,” Festa said. “We haven’t had the backfill of skaters coming in, and its that way on both side of town. We aren’t getting the numbers we used to. It’s been a steady decline.”

A major bright spot for Sheehan has been Festa’s son, sophomore center Max Festa. He’s in the midst of a monster season with 32 goals and 18 assists. That’s 50 points in 20 games.

As a freshman, Max Festa had 60 points with 31 goals and 29 assists.

After reaching the 100-point milestone in career game No. 35, Festa heads to the postseason with 110 points in 45 games. His 32 goals this season is second in the team record book to only Joey Romano’s 35 in 2019-20.

“At the end of the season, I was putting the stats together and they were pretty astounding,” Dave Festa said. “We are the last place team going into the playoffs and his contributions to the team have been tremendous. He has a state-high seven hat tricks. He is one of — if not the — top scorer in the state and has a plus-minus of plus-26.

“He’s been invaluable for the team, especially as a 15-year-old playing against mainly 17- and 18-year-olds. He’s playing every other shift as well as special teams. His contributions are astounding when you look at is a whole.”

Junior Landon Cantele (10 goals, 21 assists) and freshman Preston Cantele (4 goals, 8 assists) have also been offensive contributors.

Sheehan was dealt a big blow early in the season when sophomore forward Lorenzo DeFilio was lost for the year to a broken collarbone. In just three games, he had three goals and eight assists.

The Titans top defenders are seniors Billy Totz and Tyler Connery as well as the freshman Preston Cantele.

Sheehan’s two goalies are junior Michael Fritz and senior Justin Lyon. Lyon started the first meeting with North Haven and played well in defeat.

Coach Festa said he hasn’t decided who will be between the crease for the Titans in states.

What will it take for Sheehan to pull off the upset?

“We have to play disciplined in our positions,” Coach Festa said. “We need to win puck battles and play strong and responsibly on defense. We need to close gaps quickly in the neutral zone and limit their opportunities. We have to get shots on net and take advantage of the opportunity for rebounds and jump on them quickly.”

That pretty much sums it up, as well, for the Southington Co-op in Division III. The No. 16 Blue Knights take on a top seed in Masuk that hasn’t lost since falling to Branford 7-6 on Dec. 21. The Panthers have gone 15-0-2 since, with the lone blemishes ties to SCC/SWC rivals Watertown-Pomperaug and JBWA.

Then again, Southington-Coginchaug-Westbrook Co-op is on something of a run, too, after starting the season 0-11. The Blue Knights responded with five straight wins and played well in a 2-1 loss in the regular-season finale against Hall, the team that could be waiting for the Southington-Masuk winner in the quarterfinals.

Like Sheehan, Southington got into the state tournament due to McMahon-Norwalk (10-10) being ruled ineligible due to excessive major penalties and misconducts.


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