CONWAY — “Everyone is thankful that the kids are out here on the ice and that we have the opportunity to play,” said Kennett High Coach Michael Lane talking about what hockey will look like in 2021 mind the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Eagles come into the 2021 season as the defending state champs in Division III.
Last winter, the hometown flock played its best hockey at the right time, securing the No. 6 seed for the Division III playoffs on the final day of the regular season a 7-0 victory over visiting Laconia-Winnisquam-Inter-Lakes at the Ham Ice Arena on Feb. 22 to improve to 7-9-1.
In the opening round of the tournament, senior Miles Woodbury scored 3:21 into overtime on Feb. 29 to give the No. 6 seeded Eagles a 4-3 victory over No. 3 Hollis-Brookline-Derryfield (13-5-1) at Conway Arena in Nashua to send the hometown flock to the Frozen Four.
In the Frozen Four, at Plymouth State University Ice Arena, on March 11, Kennett dominated every facet of play, scoring five goals in the first period on its way to a comfortable 8-0 victory over ConVal-Conant, which knocked off No. 2 Belmont-Gilford (14-5), 7-4 at the Laconia Ice Arena the week before.
Sadly the finals against No. 1 seed Berlin-Gorham never took place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials from both schools along with the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association tried to make the title game planned originally for March 14 happen, but ultimately on March 23, announced the game would not be played, making the Eagles and Mountaineers co-champions.
“Co-champions will be awarded to the highest-seeded team remaining on each side of the NHIAA Tournament bracket. All other teams remaining in the tournament will be awarded runner-up plaques and medals," NHIAA Executive Director Jeffery Collins announced on March 23.
Lane reacted at the time by saying, “That’s some good news amid all this chaos.”
“I’m happy for our seniors. They did all they could, and to see them go out on top means a lot," he said, adding, "No one wanted to win the championship this way. We all wanted to see the championship settled on the ice. It’s no one's fault. The NHIAA was put in a tough spot and made the best decision it felt it could."
Kennett lost six seniors from last year’s team to graduation in Dakota Field, Dom Jones, Trevor LaRusso, Reilly Murphy, Connor Tofflemoyer and Miles Woodbury.
Junior Grace Murphy along with sophomores Tessa Capozzoli and Lucy Girouard did not come out for the program this winter. Murphy has transferred to Holderness School where she is playing ice hockey.
It’s been a preseason like no other for Lane and his team. With the pandemic, winter sports started later than usual out of caution. The Conway School Board gave the winter teams the green light to begin practice on Dec. 15. There have been no scrimmages for the team, the annual Peter Hall Christmas Tournament, held the three days after Christmas, was canceled this season; and the Eagles had to adjust to wide-ranging coronavirus protocols.
Athletes go through daily health screenings before taking the ice. This includes temperature checks. Coaches and athletes wear masks at all times. Even in practice, the Eagles are broken up into small cohorts if contact tracing needs to occur.
“There are some unique challenges for us as coaches and players,” Lane said. “I’ve really got to give (KHS Athletic Director) Neal Weaver and Colby Locke (head trainer from Mountain Center Physical Therapy a ton of credit for coming up with the protocols we have in place.”
He added: “The attitudes of the kids have been phenomenal. Especially our seniors given the circumstances that they have had to deal with.”
Lane, who is the assistant recreation director for the town of Conway, said having gone through COVID-protocols to ensure a successful summer camp program for children, is a plus.
“It’s not normal, but it’s become more normal for us,” he said. “Our players have been in masks since Dec. 15. They’ve been able to adapt.”
Kennett was scheduled to open the season on Wednesday with Belmont-Gilford coming to the Ham Arena, and the two schools were slated to meet in Laconia on Saturday, but Belmont announced Friday it was going fully remote until Jan. 18 due to the virus and not playing sports for the next two weeks.
The Eagles will have a game and it will be at home on Saturday (5:30 p.m.) when Kearsarge-Plymouth is scheduled to come to town. It will be the season-opener for both teams.
“Most of the teams are in the same boat as us when it comes to the season,” Lane said. “We’re a little bit ahead of some teams thanks to Pat Murphy running a midget program to get kids on the ice this fall. I think we’re all grateful to be allowed to play.”
KHS is an incredible 187-68-7 in Lane's first 13 seasons as head coach, and that now includes winning five state championships, making nine finals appearances and 10 Frozen Four appearances over that span.
Lane has all three of his assistants back on the bench — Justin Frechette working with the defense and Mike Deyak with the goalies and Dan Lucchetti working with the forwards.
There are 15 student-athletes out for the hockey team this winter.
Seniors are Matt Cormier, Colby Hall, Brady Shaw, John Trapela and Bryson Wrobleski.
Colby Olivier is the lone junior on the team.
Sophomores are Noah Keefe, Jack Robinson, Sam Seavey and Wade Volo.
Freshmen are James Dumas, Caiden Graves, Killian McPherson, Zach Moore and Robbie Murphy.
Before the puck dropping on Saturday, the Eagles will honor the five seniors for their commitment and dedication to the program.
Teams will play regionalized schedules, and, like in the fall, the NHIAA will hold an open tournament meaning all schools that want to are eligible to participate.
“I like an open tournament this year,” said Lane. “It allows us to try some things in the regular season that we might not normally be able to do.”
Lane likes his team and is eager to see the Eagles in action.
“We lost a lot of scoring from last year but thankfully we’ve had a couple of surprises this winter,” he said. “Our team will be built from the goalie out. We believe Bryson Wrobleski is the best goalie in the league. I expect him to have a great season. He’s a pleasure to coach and he has just the sort of leadership skills you want in a senior.”
On the blue line, Shaw, Olivier and Seavey are being counted on to log a lot of minutes.
“Brady had a breakout second half last season,” Lane said. “He’s another great leader. Colby Olivier is a quiet kid who does so many of the little things really well. Sam has improved his shot and is on his way to becoming a shutdown player for us. I look for him to have a fantastic year.”
Hall, who is one of the top forwards in Division III, should continue to give defenses nightmares. He will be on a line with Volo (at center) and Murphy on the left-wing.
“Wade played in Southern New Hampshire last year, he’s a very talented player,” said Lane. “I look for him to have a fantastic season along with Colby. Robbie is another talented Murphy, but he’s his own Murphy. We’re counting on him to also see some duty on the blue line.”
Trapela and Cormier will be on the second line along with Keefe and Robinson.
“We’re asking our players to be able to play multiple positions,” Lane explained. “Given COVID, you just don’t know what might happen this season.”
Gaves, Dumas and McPherson will make up the third line, while Moore is the backup goalie.
“We’re excited about the season,” Lane said. “Our mantra is control what you can control; show up when it’s time to play; and give your all when you’re on the ice.”