When they began their 2016-17 winter campaign with a 2-5-1 record through their first eight games, it was very hard to believe that the Warrior-Knight ice hockey team was going to make a deep run into the Division III tournament; a win or two, maybe.
Head coach Brian Cannon stated that he didn’t know what to expect with this team before the season started, which left me scratching my head.
The Warrior-Knights only had one experienced goalie returning to the team in junior Zach Monti after their other two starting goalies, juniors Adam Faust and Harrison Freda, decided not to return. Leading goal scorer and co-captain, Jarod Florian, was lost to graduation as well.
But through all the key losses, Division III wasn’t looking too high of a mountain to climb. The Warrior-Knights fell, 5-2, to No. 5 Westhill-Stamford in the quarterfinals of last year’s state tournament, who went on to beat No. 3 Staples-Weston-Shelton by a goal, 5-4, in the final.
Westhill-Stamford had since moved up to Division II, but the Warrior-Knights still had to deal with the young and talented up-start program of Woodstock Academy, who was returning their 100-career goal scorer, Ryan Black.
Yet, there was hope. The Warrior-Knights gave the undefeated and top-ranked Centaurs their first loss, 3-2, of the season in a February home game.
Following the defining victory, the Warrior-Knights went on to win four of their next seven games and finish the regular season with an overall record of 9-8-3.
The win over the Centaurs gave the Warrior-Knights the confidence they needed to defeat Division II EO Smith-Tolland by a goal, 3-2, at home and clinch a spot in the CCC South regional tournament with a 5-2 triumph at Bolton-Coventry-Rockville in the regular season finale.
After an early exit from the CCC South regional tournament, a one-goal overtime victory, 4-3, over No. 11 Newington Co-op gave the sixth-seeded Warrior-Knights a scare in the first round of the Division III tournament, hobbling past a team that won just three games all season.
But they weren’t frightened moving forward. The Warrior-Knights managed to pull upsets over No. 3 Housatonic-Northwestern and No. 2 Wethersfield-Middletown-Rocky Hill-Plainville in the next two rounds, advancing to the final for the first time in the co-op’s history.
The Warrior Knights met up with top-seeded Woodstock again in what would play out as a seesaw, action-packed championship game. Down by a goal heading into the final period, Jeremy Fortin knotted the score at 3-3 nine seconds into the third.
Before you knew it, another shot by the Warrior-Knights fired off the post moments later. If that shot hit net instead of pipe, the Warrior-Knights might have been celebrating their first-ever Division III title with all of the momentum shifting in their favor.
The battle was that close, making the game a lot closer than the final score. In the first two periods, it was anyone’s trophy. But the hockey gods thought differently midway through the third.
The Centaurs went on to score four unanswered goals and hold up their first-ever state trophy with just four years of being an established program. That very well could have been Hall-Southington’s moment, but the boys in blue still shocked the Division III world.
When the Warrior-Knights were the first ones to the puck and the aggressors on the boards, they were successful and a fun group to watch.
It only keeps me wondering how good they can be next year.
For this week’s box scores, click here: (http://southingtonobserver.com/2017/03/20/weekly-scoreboard-for-the-march-24-edition/). To contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.