Matt Shea loves hockey. He loves playing for Arlington High. He loves captaining the Spy Ponders, competing alongside his teammates, and proving wrong those who say “you can’t.”
But sometimes, the love of the game just isn’t enough. Sometimes, preparing to serve your country takes precedence.
That’s why next week, when the Arlington boys begin play in the Division 1 state tournament, one of its most important players will be watching from the sideline. Shea — Arlington’s No. 1 right wing — is done for the season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament.
But this is not news for Arlington. Shea suffered the injury in late September playing football, and for the first two-plus months of his final high school hockey campaign — with the help of physical therapy and a titanium brace — he defied logic by skating with the injury. Shea finally called it a season earlier this month with a big-picture focus: He needs to be physically ready to attend Norwich University, a private military college in Vermont, in the fall.
“I can’t tell you how ecstatic I am that he’s going to be in the military,” said Arlington coach John Messuri . “That makes me feel safe. As an American, you want a whole bunch of Matty Sheas in the military. It’s a wonderful thing. I was blessed to coach the kid.
“He’s always kind of been the heart of the team. Systems-wise he’s perfect, effort-wise there’s nobody that works harder — you can’t. That’s why he’s a captain.”
Shea worked to build that reputation, and his performance this season cemented it. Not only did Shea play with a torn ACL, but he played well. He was reliable for about a point per game, totaling five goals and 15 assists as Arlington (11-3-4) reestablished itself on the Division 1 and Middlesex League stage. Shea’s last game, a 2-0 win over Reading Memorial on Feb. 8, was an impressive one: He scored a goal, assisted on the other, and had one tally called back.
“It was an unbelievable way for him to go out,” said Messuri.
He said it with a smile on his face, almost in awe of what a 5-foot-6, 175-pound “undersized middle linebacker,” as the coach put it, could do on the ice with a knee injury that keeps most athletes out for at least a year. But it wasn’t all smiles early on for Messuri.
Shea’s battle to skate was a complicated one. When he first suffered the injury, doctors told him his high school athletic career was over. That wasn’t good enough for Shea. “Can I do anything?” he asked.
Well, maybe. Physical therapy could help. So Shea gave it a shot, desperate for anything that might help him participate.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Shea said of playing through it, brace and swelling and all. “My left leg was a lot bigger than my right.”
According to Shea, the therapy strengthened the muscles around the torn ACL enough for him to get by. After a few skating sessions to adjust to the presence of the bulky brace, he decided he could manage.
Messuri wasn’t as confident.
Captain Matt Shea has ‘always kind of been the heart of the team.’
“Every time he went on the ice the first four or five games, I would be on the bench holding my breath,” Messuri said. “And then it kind of settled in and he looked good. . . There were games where we just didn’t like how he looked. He’d fight us, but the leg looked fatigued. We shut him down a few times.”
Shea played through the pain whenever he could, and his effect on the team grew to be more than just points. Now the Spy Ponders are without him — sort of. He’ll still be there, cheering them on from the bench, offering encouragement and inspiration even when it doesn’t come in the form of words.
“I don’t know how he did it,” said senior captain Mike Greco . “You could definitely see there was a little weakness in him because you’d see [the knee] buckle every now and then, but he fought through it. Being a senior, he didn’t want to just go and have surgery. He wanted to play.
“It meant a lot to a lot of us. It really showed us that we have no excuses for anything — he was out there playing on one leg.”
More teams in the hunt
With tournament seedings set to be released this weekend, here is a look at some other area teams that could make deep tournament runs:
►Arlington Catholic (12-5-1): The Cougars’ have maintained the No. 1 spot in the Globe West Top 10 for most of the season, and they are considered to be on the cusp of a Division 1A bid. Coach Dan Shine has an array of offensive weapons — 15 players have scored a goal — supplemented by senior John Richard between the pipes. Arlington Catholic has given up more than three goals only once this season.
►Medfield (13-2-3): A great regular season, four 20-point scorers, and a run at the Tri-Valley League title might be for naught if the Warriors’ Division 2 tournament stay is cut short. Sophomore Matt Treiber (28 points) and senior Pat Lawler (26 points) will work to make sure last year’s fate — a first-round exit after an 18-win season — isn’t repeated.
►Shrewsbury (15-2-1): Another team with no shortage in the offensive end — they average more than five goals per game — the Colonials seem to have a clear No. 1 goalie, too, as they head into the Division 3 bracket. Coach Stephen Turnblom indicated senior William Shipman (.921 save percentage, 1.30 GAA) will lead the team into March as it looks to continue a six-game unbeaten streak.
►St. John’s High (10-4-6): The Pioneers’ record isn’t as sparkling as some other teams, but you can chalk that up to a higher level of competition; as many as six of their games came against potential Super 8 teams. Should St. John’s make it deep in the Division 1 tournament, expect a trio of Shrewsbury residents to be in the middle of it: junior forwards Patrick Storer (10 goals, 11 assists) and Kevin Quinlivan (10 goals, eight assists), plus senior netminder Mario Pizzeri (.908 saves percentage, 2.68 goals-against average).
►Acton-Boxborough Regional (16-2): The young Colonials have lost once since Christmas en route to the Merrimack Valley/Dual County League title. Sophomores Kaitlin Hoang and sophomore Megan Barrett plus junior Leah Cardarelli have combined for 122 points. The Division 1 tournament will be the last hurrah for Cardarelli and her sister, senior captain Eleana, as teammates.
►Arlington Catholic (15-2-1): Don’t discount the two-time Division 1 state finalists. This is arguably the best team coach Maggie Taverna has had in her four years, and to no one’s surprise junior forward Adrieanna Rossini (24 goals, 12 assists) is leading the way. The seven shutouts by junior goalie Katherine Crane have her tied for second most in the state.
►Medway/Ashland (12-4-2): After the first three games when the young Division 2 co-op program was still getting its feet under it, Medway/Ashland lost only twice. Forward Melissa Alexander , just a freshman, is one of the top scorers in the SEMGHL West with 18 goals and 26 points.
►Wayland/Weston (9-6-3): The WarCats don’t possess the tourney experience some of the other Division 2 teams do, but if freshman sensation Morgan Griffin (31 goals, 15 assists) can exhibit the same take-over-at-will ability she has at times this season, the team could steal a game or two.
►Wellesley (17-1-1): It’s been no seniors, no problem for the nearly perfect Raiders this season. This is a team that takes each loss — all three of them over the last two seasons — hard, and has the offensive power to exact revenge. Since dropping a 4-3 decision to Framingham on Jan. 29, Wellesley has won six straight.Tim Healey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @timbhealey.