WALLINGFORD — From a five-goal win against Immaculate to an overtime victory against then-undefeated Daniel Hand, from a one-goal victory against the rival Lyman Hall Co-op to winning a third straight SCC/SWC Division III Championship, it was a season to remember for the Sheehan hockey team, even if the state tournament was cut short by the coronavirus crisis.
Sheehan’s explosive offense was a key factor in this special season. Junior Anthony Romano led the team with 55 points, while his twin brother Joe led the team with 35 goals and added 52 points of his own.
Anthony Romano and junior Luke Festa had a knack for assisting other players. Festa led the team with 31 assists. Romano had 30.
Festa and Joe Romano both passed the 100-point milestone this season. Anthony Romano did it last year as sophomore.
Sheehan coach Dave Festa said achieving that milestone in two seasons is very rare. In fact, it was the first time he had ever seen it happen.
Joe Romano, meanwhile, had a streak of hat tricks in three consecutive games late in the season.
“Joe Romano is a special player,” Coach Festa said. “When you need to score, you need that go-to person, the guy to put the puck in the back of the net, he’s going to help the team. When the puck’s on his stick, I’m pretty confident he’ll find a way to put it in.”
On their way to an 19-3-1 record, the Titans outscored their opponents by an average of 6-3. Sheehan put consistent pressure on opponents, outshooting them 46-20 on average.
Sheehan would often get out to a quick start offensively. In the first period, the Titans outshot opponents 403-160 and outscored them 55-21.
“Getting the first goal of the game is huge,” noted senior captain Devin Napoli. “Once we get the first one, we want to just keep putting pressure on our opponents and get the snowball rolling.”
That snowball often became an avalanche. On five occasions, the Titans scored 10 goals or more in a single game.
Aggressiveness, according to Luke Festa, was a trademark for this year's team.
“Our ability to jump on other teams and keep the puck down their end and pepper the goalies was big this season, because we knew if we just kept the attack going the other team’s goalies were going to give something up at some point,” the junior forward said. “So we just kept the attack going, with all three lines being able to press other teams and wear them down.”
Coach Festa agreed that the amount of shots his offense generated took a toll on opposing goaltenders.
“Getting a lot of shots, making that goaltender move side to side, get up and down, throughout a 45-minute game makes it strenuous,” he said. “So what we do, just constantly putting shots on net, that’s a tremendous advantage for us. The later-game score, the third period, has been our stronger period.”
This was apparent as the Titans outscored opponents 44-23 in the third period.
“Not many goalies see 40-60 shots a game, and when we bring that night after night we know that it will increase our chances to come out on top,” Napoli said.
Sheehan will be graduating two important players in Napoli and his fellow senior captain, Dayton Allderige.
“The two seniors are definitely going to be a big loss in the locker room and on the ice,” said Luke Festa. “Dayton was a big boost for us. When everyone else was a step behind he would lead by pushing the pace. Devin would get the big goals when we needed them, so definitely two big losses.”
Coach Festa said Sheehan has a deep bench and many players who are capable of filling big skates next winter.
“I see Anthony DeFilio stepping up and taking a bigger role,” Festa said. “One of the things that isn’t talked about a lot: our defense. Their play this year really dictated a lot of our success. As they stepped up and were part of the offense, that really helped our offensive production. They would be able to transition the puck up to our forwards, who would press the zone or keep the offensive pressure on.”
After graduating veteran goalie Tyler Robertson, Sheehan had two young netminders step up and provide consistent play. Sophomore Luca Mange contributed 85 saves and allowed 13 goals. Freshman Justin Lyon had 255 saves against just 46 goals allowed.
“Our goalies and defensemen were underrated in the state all season,” said Luke Festa. “Justin was just a freshman this year and made huge saves in big games when we needed him to and we were very impressed with his ability to be able to keep calm in big game situations.”
One thing the Titans did this year was set goals for themselves during games.
“That was kind of the game within the game this year,” Coach Festa said. “We were looking for ways to challenge ourselves, really setting ourselves up for the end-of-the-year playoff run, knowing that we wanted to get better and better as the games went on. I told the team, ‘If you do things the proper way, the results will speak for themselves.’”
Sheehan certainly had many memorable games this season. Luke Festa said he believed the team's best, most complete game was the 6-5 overtime victory against Daniel Hand on Jan. 15.
“It was definitely a big confidence booster to the team because they were undefeated at the time and were D-2 favorites,” Festa said.
Coach Festa referred to it as “the game within the game” and a test of his team’s ability to bounce back from adversity.
“We went up 3-0 on them; they came back. We faced adversity, and that was one of the key things of this team that really showed one of our strengths to be able to fight back against a really strong team,” said the coach. “That was one of the key games that sticks out in my mind, probably the pinnacle of our regular season.”
The Titans worked hard throughout the season to turn their few weaknesses into strengths. Sheehan finished the season winning 64 percent of faceoffs. Initially, that wasn’t the case.
“About halfway through the season, we noticed that we were losing a lot of advantages on faceoffs, so we made it a point during practice to concentrate on,” Coach Festa said.
Festa credited the work of assistant coach Brent Piepenbring.
“Brent really took on that responsibility of working with our centers and wings. We understood that winning a faceoff wasn’t just our center, but it was all five guys.
Napoli, a center, expanded on the effort Sheehan put into winning faceoffs.
“Three times a week the centers stay on the ice a little longer than everyone else with Coach Brent and we get lots of reps to make sure we dominate the dot,” Napoli said. “Winning most of the faceoffs gives us more puck possession than the other team and will give us more opportunities to get the puck on net.”
One of the strongest qualities of this team was its ability to prepare for opponents, stay focused and not get rattled. This quality was exemplified by the 6-5 overtime win over Hand, the 6-5 rivarly win over LH on Feb. 15 and even in a 5-3 loss to North Haven on Feb. 1. Each of those teams was a Division II opponent.
“One of the key things about this team is that they really rose to the occasion,” Coach Festa said. “When Hand came in to play us, which was a very strong D-2 team, when we played against North Haven, Lyman Hall, those stuck in my head as games that we went in mentally prepared, we knew our assignments.”
Against the LH Co-op, Sheehan gave up an empty-net goal early in the second period due to a miscommunication. It gave the Trojans a one-goal lead.
Napoli said it would have been easy for the Titans to just give up at that point and blame factors outside of their control for the loss, but giving up wasn’t in the team’s DNA.
“We knew what our team was capable of and we had to persevere through those tough times and come together as one team,” Napoli said.
“We were able to take a breath and regroup,” Coach Festa noted. “This taught us that we could face adversity and come out stronger.”
Festa described the Hand game as a “milestone” for his team. He also said that it was after the North Haven game that he really knew his team had the ability to be great, even though Sheehan had lost that game.
“We played very well, very strong against a very good North Haven team,” Festa elaborated. “Even though the score didn’t work out in our favor that game, we came away nodding our heads in approval, knowing our team has the mental fortitude to get to the next step.”
Not everybody who made significant contributions to Sheehan’s success this season got noticed outside of the team. Coach Festa referenced several such “unsung heroes” for the Titans.
“We have a couple of those players,” Festa said. “Joey Richo, with his speed, he’s able to get in and disrupt the flow of the other team’s defense handling the puck. Brenden Hilinski and James Stratton on defense, who were able to possess the puck. These guys don’t get on the scoresheet a lot, don’t get the interviews a lot, but they’re an integral part of the team.”
Festa said this group of players and coaches was more than a team, they were a family.
“One of the things we really focused on this year was the family. We were a family, and with family, there’s ups and downs, but in the end, when somebody scores their first goal, the whole bench would erupt cheering,” Festa said.
Some of the goals that Sheehan had for this season will have to wait until next year. Tops on the list: a state championship. The Titans, who had fallen to the LH Co-op in the 2019 Division III state final, were the No. 1 seed for the 2020 tournament.
Due to the coronavirus, the CIAC cancelled what remained of the winter postseason and not state champions were crowned in hockey. Coach Festa said his players knjow they have unfinished business and are hungry to improve on a tremendous 2019-20 season.
“Knowing that we have unfinished business going into next year, you can already see some of the team already talking about working out (and) how can we improve on last year?” Festa reported.
The Titans are analyzing games that they won, never being satisfied and always looking for ways to get better.
“There were a lot of games we won on the scoreboard, but looking back, it may not have been our best game. We got the victory but let’s work on these certain areas,” Festa said. “That was the team mentality, which was great. We were always striving to get better, and that’s the sign of a very good team.”
Luke Festa said he already has plans in place for the offseason.
“I personally will be getting on the ice with multiple teams and coaches to keep my game up to speed and work on parts of my game that need work,” the younger Festa said.
Luke said that despite the unfortunate outcome, the Titans had a great season and have their work cut out for them next year.
“We proved from the beginning we were out for revenge from the way last season ended and we plan on carrying that into next season.”
With three of their four point leaders returning next season and with a deep roster of experienced contributors who theoretically will only get better, the Titans will look to stage an encore of this elite offensive season as their revenge tour continues next winter.