Lacing up the skates against St. Mary’s of Lynn, the defending Division 1 girls’ hockey state champion, has become a seasonal bar-setting experience for Austin Prep.
While every matchup between the two Catholic Central League heavyweights has swayed in St. Mary’s favor the past six years — including the Spartans’ thrilling 1-0 victory on Saturday night — Prep team members feel they will be well positioned for a possible rematch at tournament time.
Building off last season’s unexpected run to the Division 1 quarterfinals, in which Prep was ousted by St. Mary’s, 3-0, expectations have changed in Reading under second-year coach Stephanie Wood .
Reaching the quarterfinals was the program’s best run in eight years, and first tourney appearance since the 2009-10 season.
Austin Prep has asserted itself as a legitimate title threat.
Last year’s campaign “gave this core group a taste of success that made them that much hungrier to start this season,” said Wood.
“We’re not underdogs anymore,” added Prep junior Maddi Ricci , a four-year varsity forward.
“We’ve become one of the teams people are gunning for.”
The Cougars (10-3-2) have suffered two of their three losses to St. Mary’s, both 1-0 defeats.
For the majority of three periods, the Cougars outplayed St. Mary’s with dominant puck possession, outshooting the Spartans 30-15. But they were unable to solve goalie Lauren Skinnion .
“We will build off tonight, because we have to,” said freshman forward Michaela Boyle , who leads the team in points with 10 goals and eight assists.
“It’s going to come, because that’s what our coaches have been telling us. It’s going to come.”
Wood’s players have clearly bought in to her approach.
A former defenseman and forward at Northeastern University, she is in her third year as the women’s director of the Islanders Youth Hockey Organization based in North Andover.
At Austin Prep, her players believe her presence has been the main factor in the program’s resurgence.
“She’s the rock of our team,” Boyle said, adding that Wood is both the Cougars’ biggest fan and biggest critic.
As the lone senior on the team, Maryanna DiRuppo , in her fifth season on varsity, has experienced highs and lows.
“She’s determined to having us play together as a unit,” said DiRuppo, a defenseman. “The past two years we’ve been much closer as a team than before.
“She came in and has gotten us through some of the hardest games we’ve ever played.”
St. Mary’s coach Frank Pagliuca has taken note of Wood’s impact.
“She’s just done a wonderful job with that program,” he said. “They’re very well coached in terms of what they do on the ice; they play their game to beat any team.”
Prep’s game is built on the all-around contributions from its relatively young players: one senior, four juniors, and 13 underclassmen.
At the beginning of the season, the biggest void was in net with the graduation of Shannon O’Neil, who established a school record last season with 10 shutouts in 23 games before heading off to Franklin Pierce University.
But Caty Flagg , a 5-foot-3 sophomore, has not “skipped a beat,” said Wood.
Through 15 games, Flagg posted six shutouts with a 0.81 goals-against average and a .961 save percentage.
The calm, poised, rarely rattled Flagg has been “everything the team could ask for,” according to Boyle.
“I knew coming in I had to keep the team in every game like [O’Neil] did,” Flagg said. “I don’t get too overwhelmed if I let in a goal; it’s just on to the next one.”
Freshman forward Annie Richards (four goals, eight assists) centers the top line, flanked by Ricci (two goals, 10 assists) on the left and junior Meghan Hanlon (four goals, four assists) on the right.
Wood also encourages the defensemen to join the attack, as sophomores Jamiee Cooke (one goal, eight assists) and Cally Chase (one goal, five assists) help cycle the puck in a consistently moving rotation.
The players’ unity — fostered through Select team bonding events during the summer, offseason workouts held at the strength and conditioning center in Woburn owned by Boyle’s father, Mike , and their buy-in to the TEAM motto — “together everyone achieves more” — is something the Cougars take pride in.
“If we weren’t going to be the most talented team, we were going to be the strongest and most hard-working,” Boyle said.
Led by Wood, the Cougars have been able to bring together both talent and heart.
“She kept to her word,” said Ricci, recalling one of Wood’s speeches from last season.
“She said, ‘If you guys trust me, I’ll bring you far into the playoffs.’ And she did just that.”
Austin Prep has even higher aspirations this March.
A trip to the TD Garden for the state final is a realistic goal.
“We just want to remember this feeling,” said Boyle of the 1-0 loss to St. Mary’s. “And we don’t want to feel it again.”
After rocky start, St. Mary’s boys jell
After a rough December in which the St. Mary’s boys struggled to a 2-3-1 record, the Spartans ripped off an 11-1-1 streak.
Sitting behind Austin Prep in the Catholic Central standings , coach Mark Lee’s squad has leaned on brothers Bailey and Shawn MacBurnie .
“They’re just very dedicated players who take the game seriously,” Lee said. “Once they hit the ice, they’re very competitive and show a passion for the game that helps bring our skill level up to where it is.”
Shawn, a junior forward, has a team-leading 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists). Bailey, a senior captain, has anchored the defense with six shutouts in net while posting a 1.35 goals-against average and .943 save percentage through 18 games.
Bailey returned to the team this season after playing at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. His main reason for returning?
To share the ice with his younger brother one last time.
St. John’s notches 2
Continuing the trend of its roller-coaster season, St. John’s Prep reeled off a much-needed two-game winning streak by beating Austin Prep (2-0) and Arlington Catholic (3-2) last week.Joseph Saade can be reached at email@example.com.