Pat Coffey struggled to describe the change.
Sitting next to fellow captains Dan Matisoff and Aidan Killeen after a Milton High hockey practice Friday, Coffey said that even though the Wildcats have 13 seniors that played on last year’s squad, the mood on the team is not the same.
“It’s different from last year, even though everyone is the same,” Coffey said. “It’s basically the same team . . . but it’s a different atmosphere.”
A year ago, Milton went 9-8-6, losing in the first round of the Division 1 South tournament. The Wildcats entered this week 13-1-1, atop the Bay State Herget division with a 10-1-1 league record.
Coach Paul Noonan said the large senior class this year has led to the improvement.
“Last year we didn’t have many seniors,” Noonan said. “They are the faster, the stronger, the more mature kids, so it’s always good to have them.”
The big senior class gives Noonan a deep team. He rotates three lines and has seven senior defensemen to lean on.
“We have guys on all three lines that can score,” Noonan said. “That’s unheard of in public schools. . . . That consistency wears on the other team and gets us that one extra bounce that leads to a goal.”
Milton has often needed that extra bounce, as five of its 13 wins have come by one or two goals.
One of the seniors Noonan praised for always working for loose pucks was his first-line center, Colin McCabe .
“Anyone who watches us play, Colin McCabe becomes their favorite player,” Noonan said.
McCabe is just 5-foot-4, but after wrestling as a freshman, he often bodies opponents in the crease and corners on the ice.
“You look at him and think he’s a pushover,” Noonan said. “He’s not.”
After recognizing that McCabe had improved his hockey skills, Noonan put him on the top line along with the team’s “hockey guys,” seniors Connor Shea and Connor Richard .
“Connor Shea and Connor Richard are the goal scorers; I let them do their things,” McCabe said. “I leave the pretty stuff to Connor and Connor, and I just get the garbage.”
Richard leads the team with 12 goals through 15 games. Shea has scored 11 times, and McCabe has tallied 7 goals and a team-high 12 assists.
McCabe said the line combination jelled quickly because the three were friends and knew each others’ games well. But McCabe added that the whole senior class is close. They go to Providence Bruins games together, have pasta parties the night before a game, watch film, and look out for one another on and off the ice.
Noonan has noticed the camaraderie and credited it with the team’s win against Weymouth. Milton trailed, 1-0, for much of the game, but the seniors did not quit, Noonan said, and Richard and Shea ultimately fueled a 3-1 win.
The senior class has had some competitive practices. On Friday, McCabe and the other skaters on the second power-play unit scored three times, celebrating with fist pumps and screams.
“We try to be hard on each other in practice,” McCabe said. “In games we know it is not going to be a skate-through. We keep score and guys go hard.”
Noonan said the competitive practices are particularly important for a team he admits has not faced much adversity to this point.
This year’s large senior class and successful start share several similarities with Milton’s 2011-2012 squad, which, led by more than a dozen seniors, reached the state final.
“Being in the locker room back then, the guys were one big family and they did everything together,” McCabe said. “I see a lot of similarities between two years ago and now.”
But McCabe added that this year’s team is not trying to be the same as that squad.
“Everyone is still talking about 2012. We want to put that behind us and be the team in 2014 that goes to the Garden,” he said.
Noble & Greenough notches 19 in a row
After a dominant performance against Brooks Saturday, the Noble & Greenough girls extended their winning streak to 19 games. Freshman Becca Gilmore of Wayland had a hat trick and an assist in the 7-0 rout, but coach Tom Resor felt his entire team played well.
“We probably played one of our best games of the season,” Resor said. “We created a lot of chances and were able to finish a lot of plays. Start to finish, that was one of our strongest games of the year.”
Senior goaltender Casey Nunnelly of Dover tallied another shutout in the win. The Bulldogs have now held their opponents scoreless 11 times this year and have not yet given up more than two goals in a game.
“Until this year, she hadn’t played regularly,” Resor said of Nunnelly, who will play at Dartmouth next year. “She waited patiently for her big chance this year and this year she has seized the opportunity.”
Nunnelly is one of eight seniors that Resor credited with guiding his team to its undefeated record thus far.
One of those seniors, Kenzie Kent of Norwell, who is headed to Boston College for hockey and lacrosse next year, is third on the team in goals with 13, trailing only Gilmore and Lexie Laing of Marblehead.
Those three were all recently chosen for the United States’ U18 national team, which will head to Hungary to play in the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s Under-18 World Championship in late March.
Duxbury boys are back on top
With a 3-0 win over Whitman-Hanson Saturday, Duxbury captured its third straight Patriot League Division title after starting the year 0-1-3.
“I think we really improved as we’ve gone along here,” coach John Blake said. “We knew we had to stay the course.”
Senior goaltender Tucker Kelly notched the shutout Saturday, and has been a pleasant surprise for the Dragons.
“Coming into the season, goalie was definitely a question mark; some people thought it was going to be a team weakness,” Blake said. “To Tucker’s credit, he’s gotten better and better every game he’s gotten experience, and he wants to get better every day.”