There aren’t too many teams that will admit the season would be lost, if not forgotten, if not for one player.
At Waltham High, where the boys’ hockey team is 11-7-2 and priming for a postseason run just one year after winning all of four games, the fingers all quickly point to stonewalling 6-foot-2 senior goalie Nick Russo .
Russo, who was cut from the only nonschool team he tried out for in the offseason after spending most of last year as a backup to senior Patrick Jordan , is the reason the Hawks were able to play Super 8 contender Central Catholic to a pair of 2-1 games (and Raiders coach Mike Jankowski called his team “lucky” to score twice).
Russo is also the reason the Hawks have allowed just 29 goals this season, a feat matched by just five other Division 1 teams (all fighting for a spot in the Super 8).
“Absolutely, no questions asked, we’ve been in every game because of him,” coach John Maguire said. “We’re a little better than four teams in the [Merrimack Valley/Dual County League] because of him. That’s why we’re going to the tournament.”
In the MVC/DCL, Maguire said, any team that scores three goals usually wins. The Hawks are averaging fewer than two goals per game. In the past two seasons combined, Waltham has scored just 79 goals in 40 games. There are five Division 1 teams that have scored more than that this winter alone.
Four years ago, Maguire and his coaching staff figured Russo, a “skinny, gangly kid,” would be the team’s starting goaltender, if only by default: He is the only one in his class who plays the position. After spending much of his time on the bench as a sophomore, he found his way into a few scattered games last year, his junior season.
“I wasn’t playing that often; I played youth hockey, midgets, played with a couple of friends — that was about it,” Russo said. “But I knew I had it in me.
“I played against some good teams, like Central Catholic, last year. And I beat Arlington Catholic. I was ready to be the starter.”
Maguire partially credits a junior-year growth spurt, but that doesn’t completely explain Russo’s transformation into such a formidable netminder.
Opposing coaches who hadn’t previously noticed Russo were taken by surprise this season.
“He’s a big kid, very technical and very athletic,” added Jankowski, whose Central Catholic squad needed more than 40 shots to squeeze two past Russo in each of their meetings this winter. “Usually you have some kids you play against with some good skill sets or size — he has both.
“I had never heard of him. But they have something special over there. He’s exceptional.”
Another aspect that scares other coaches is Russo’s demeanor. He has found a way to use his lack of experience as a positive, giving him a relaxed, carefree attitude that helps him do well under pressure .
“Most goalies get a couple years,” he said. “I’ve gotten one year. So I’m just trying to make the best of it.”
Whenever Maguire talks about his team’s chances this year, he says he hopes the Hawks can steal a game or two in the tournament and disrupt somebody’s title run.
But most opposing coaches get butterflies thinking about playing a team full of grinders who skate hard in front of a senior goalie with nothing to lose.
“I love big games,” said Russo, who has been approached with offers from junior hockey organizations but will probably try to walk on at a Division 3 college instead. “I feel like it’s a great opportunity to go out there and get yourself known, make great plays, help your team out the best you can.
“I tend not to get too nervous. I do pretty well in pressure situations. I just seem to handle it better than other goalies.”
St. John’s season hangs in the balance
With 22 games on the schedule, and 22 points needed to qualify for the postseason tournament, St. John’s High (7-9-4) entered Tuesday with a daunting task: Beat St. John’s Prep and BC High in back-to-back games, or hang up the skates after the regular season.
Pioneers coach Brian Murphy figured his young squad would take some bumps and bruises, but stuck with his typically frightening schedule, loaded with out-of-state battles to pair with matchups against the state’s best.
“We’ve had the same schedule for years,” said Murphy. “It’s difficult. You think, ‘What do I do?’ Do you cut it down and not make it so competitive/difficult?
“Would I go back and change it much? Probably not. Then what do you say to the [coaches] you’ve been playing against for 15 years?”
The Pioneers have battled through this season, going 6-4-4 since a 1-5 opening stretch.
Minus junior goalie Mario Pizzeri , who has been sidelined with a hip injury, St. John’s has struggled to find consistency.
But Pizzeri returns next year, along with defenseman Bryan Nelson , a potential Division 1 prospect often called one of the better blue-liners in the state.
Concord-Carlisle girls focus on balance
First-year Concord-Carlisle girls’ hockey coach Barbara Southcote simply states her team’s playoff chances: “We’re not a one-player team. And we won’t get beat by a team with one player.”
The Patriots, who qualified for the postseason with an 8-7-4 record through Monday, took down Lincoln-Sudbury Regional, 3-0, last week as they’ve continued to build confidence at the right time of the year.
“One of the coaches last night at the MVC/DCL meeting paid my team a great compliment,” said Southcote. “He said he thinks we have the best overall team.
“We run five defensemen and three lines. It’s great. I’m very fortunate.”
Senior goalie Michaela Haller , who is going to Union College, where she’ll play soccer, is having another stellar season in net with a .931 save percentage, 1.56 goals-against average, and six shutouts. Freshman Carmen Braceras is leading the team with 11 goals and three assists.
The Newton South boys (8-8-3) enter Friday’s regular-season finale at first-place Lowell one point shy of earning the program’s first tourney berth since 1994.
Senior defenseman Peter Brock and sophomore Griffin Connolly have led the way for coach Chris Ryberg’s Lions.