When Dave Spinale was hired as Xaverian hockey coach before the start of the 2001-02 season, he said that then-athletic director Charlie Stevenson laid out some pretty simple goals for the program.
“Start with winning the league title,” Spinale recalled this week.
The problem, of course, is that meant navigating inarguably the toughest hockey league in Massachusetts — the Catholic Conference. The Catholic Memorial juggernaut under Bill Hanson was the dominant program at the time, and the league title usually ran through West Roxbury, with a handful of stops at BC High.
In the past decade, Malden Catholic and St. John’s Prep also jumped into the mix, and atop the final standings. Even as recently as a week ago, CC newcomer St. John’s (Shrewsbury) was in command of the league race.
But in a span of 10 days, history finally turned in the favor of the Hawks. A five-game win streak gave Xaverian (5-3-2) a share of the league title, and despite a loss Sunday to Catholic Memorial, the Hawks sealed their first league championship since 1968 and the No. 1 seed in the Catholic Conference tournament, which begins Wednesday.
“It’s trophy season, so we’re just so excited,” Spinale said.
The Hawks have been one of the more consistent teams in Spinale’s 20 seasons behind the bench. They’ve qualified for the postseason all but twice, reached three sectional finals, and have been in the Super 8 seven times since 2008. Current Bruins forward Chris Wagner is the most famous alum to come out of the program.
But early on, it certainly didn’t look as if this year’s team would be the one to end the championship drought. Xaverian was 0-2-2 following a Jan. 31 loss to BC High and searching for answers.
“We weren’t going crazy because we knew everyone qualified [for the conference tournament],” Spinale said. “We just had to find a way to get better in our own end, find a way not to give up so many goals. We were giving up a lot of shots, a lot of quality chances.”
Shane Spinale, son of the coach and a senior co-captain, said a big key was a switch of some of the Hawks’ defensive pairings. He and fellow senior co-captain Trevor Connolly have led the way on the blue line with senior Andrew Barton, junior alternate captain Aiden Rodriguez, and juniors Shane Heron and Nolan Dion.
“With the ‘D’ playing a lot more fluid, we didn’t have to focus on matching lines,” Shane Spinale said. “We could throw any ‘D’ corps out there.”
But to the coach, a big difference came in the back end of the defensive zone, where senior goalie Kevin McGrath got hot after splitting time with fellow senior Kyle Harvey. McGrath and the Hawks gave up only four goals — no more than one in any game — in their win streak.
“He’s the reason we are where we are,” Dave Spinale said of McGrath.
Still, it took a 2-1 overtime win over St. John’s Prep on Feb. 3 to get things going. Jake Curley, a transfer from Blue Hills, got the winner for the Hawks in a game that turned out to be significant in the league race. The Catholic Conference voted to treat OT wins as full victories while the loser received a point — similar to the NHL format.
“That felt really good to win that game. It was probably our first complete game,” Shane Spinale said. “Everyone played well, everyone played their role.”
Curley centers a second line of sophomore Gavin Moynihan and junior alternate captain Jack Silva, behind the top line of juniors Braden O’Hara and Max Lockwood with sophomore Joe DiMartino.
A sweep of back-to-back games against St. John’s put Xaverian in the driver’s seat, and the Hawks clinched a share with last Friday’s win over Malden Catholic, setting the stage for Sunday’s matchup with CM.
“We didn’t tell them before the game because they’re teenagers, how are they going to process that,” Spinale said. “We said, ‘Let’s just go play a game,’ "
Following the 2-1 loss there was a feeling of missed opportunity among the players, particularly because it was the team’s annual Hockey Fights Cancer game in honor of Reo Todesca, mother of assistant coach Paul Todesca. But once the dust had settled elsewhere in the league, the championship was theirs.
“When we found out we were all kind of in shock,” Shane Spinale said. “We were down after the loss. No one really knew how to react at first.”
Then the question remained — how long had it really been? Athletic director Ted Currle had photos of the school’s gymnasium banners, and freshman coach Chris Cerbo recalled his brother played on the 1968 team. At the time it was the Catholic League and more closely resembles today’s Catholic Central — with Arlington Catholic and Austin Prep as well as Matignon. The Catholic Conference, in its current form, didn’t exist.
“We don’t hang banners for the Super 8 particularly, so we’ll get a banner, which is awesome. It’s been a long time,” said Spinale, who added it is “a little extra special” to be able to share the occasion with his son.
And share the news with one other person.
“I’m excited I finally can tell Charlie we won the league title,” Spinale said.
The wait wasn’t nearly as long, but Essex Tech made some history of its own this week.
The Hawks, who are only in their fifth season as a program, clinched a share of the first Commonwealth Athletic Conference title in school history with Saturday’s 7-0 victory over Northeast. Essex Tech (6-3-1, 5-0 CAC) can win it outright with a win or tie Thursday against perennial league power Shawsheen. The Hawks won the earlier meeting between the teams, 4-2, on Jan. 28.
In Saturday’s win, senior Dan Masta netted a hat trick and senior Cam Cannizzaro scored a pair of goals. Sophomore Kyle Mahan posted his first shutout to improve his GAA to 1.65.
Veteran coach Mark Leonard, in his second season with the program, also has gotten strong play from sophomore Bryan Swaczyk (8-8-16) and juniors David Egan (7-6-13), Jonathan Daley (3-7-10) and Nick Laconte (4-4-8). Seniors Matt Miller and Dom Paolucci, junior Logan Richardson, and sophomore Cam Doherty have sparked the defense.
▪ The Middlesex League unveiled its bracket for the inaugural boys’ hockey tournament, which will begin Wednesday, and Arlington will enter with more momentum than any other team.
The Spy Ponders, last year’s Super 8 co-champions, entered this season with a much younger squad and got off to a 1-4-1 start. But they’ve turned things around with four straight wins against Reading, Lexington, and Belmont twice — all by shutout.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen,” said coach John Messuri.
Using a tactic from past years, Messuri has had sophomores Michael Hayes and Jack Davies splitting time in net … with a twist. Hayes usually starts the game, then is relieved by Davies for the second half.
Arlington opens ML playoff action Wednesday against Stoneham.
▪ Cambridge’s Luc Denney scored his 100th career point with a power-play goal in the Falcons’ 2-0 victory Saturday over Boston Latin.
Jim Clark can be reached at email@example.com.