The Nashoba Regional boys’ hockey team is no stranger to starting the season as the team to beat.
Entering last year’s high school hockey season, the Chieftains were fresh off a 4-2 win over Chicopee Comprehensive in the 2015 Division 3A state championship.
The 2015-16 season only saw improvement from Nashoba as it ripped off a 21-2 record, outscoring opponents 17-2 in just three playoff games and capping another state title run with a 5-1 win over Amherst-Pelham at TD Garden.
And now, one year later, the Bolton-based Chieftains will find themselves in the exact same spot, only this time they’re eyeing an opportunity to make it three state titles in a row.
“Our mindset is just like every other year. We’re going to come out and try to contend in the playoffs, to be a playoff team, and then make noise when we get in the playoffs,” head coach Trevor Short said.
Nashoba leads a group of four teams from schools west of Boston that advanced to state championship games last season. Three — Nashoba, Franklin (Division 1), and Medfield (Division 2) — captured titles, while Algonquin was the Division 3 runner-up.
This is Short’s third year at the helm of Nashoba, which means each season in his career has ended the same way so far: with the celebratory lifting of a state title trophy.
But the Chieftains know as well as anyone that the road to the state championship is no easy journey.
“Expectations on a state title? At this point, I would say no. I would say that’s a little lofty and anyone who would make that prediction as a head coach right now would be . . . it would be risky,” Short said.
Plus, this year Nashoba will come against a new challenge. It will face an elevated level of competition as the team makes the jump from Division 3A to 3.
While anything less than a playoff berth would be a disappointment for the Chieftains, they are focused on gearing up for a successful regular season.
Junior captain Bryce Chaput, the leading scorer in Central Mass. from last season, and a host of other talented young players will look to make an impact right from the get-go.
At the Division 2 level, it was a story of redemption for Medfield.
Two years after falling one goal short in their first championship appearance at TD Garden, the Warriors returned to the title game and finished the job with a 3-1 win over Lincoln-Sudbury.
“Obviously with the guys coming back they know what it’s going to take, the amount of work they’re going to have to put in,” head coach Toby Carlow said. “And I think along with that comes a confidence too, that, you know, they have been there.”
The Warriors are losing both offensive and defensive leaders from last year’s team.
But Carlow says this presents an opportunity for returning players and newcomers alike to carry the team.
Sophomore Brian Abely and junior Tom Schofield are among the players that Carlow expects to see grow into prominent roles.
As is the case for each of the championship teams, the focus is not on accomplishments from last year, but on development in the present.
Franklin also overcame its demons last year, ending a 33-year championship drought with a double overtime win over St. Mary’s of Lynn, 4-3.
A state title had eluded Franklin in three straight finals appearances from 2011 to 2013. But head coach Chris Spillane is hoping that last year’s win was indicative of a consistent, high standard of hockey for the Panthers.
“We don’t want to be that team that goes and plays one year in the Garden, wins it, and then doesn’t get back there for 10, 15 years,” Spillane said. “Our goal is to consistently be one of the better programs in the area.”
Looking for its sixth Hockomock league title in a row, Franklin will be led in part by its offensive-minded junior class, as many of the team’s top scorers from 2015-16 were sophomores.
The most obvious adjustment for Franklin to make this year, Spillane says, will be coping with the loss of five starting defensemen, who all either graduated or transferred out. Seniors Tom Sicchio and Stan Carter will look to help fill those gaps.
In net, senior Cam Benham and junior Owen Ginley will be vying for the starting position.
In Division 3, Algonquin has a new coach, Greg Cappello, formerly a girls’ assistant at Worcester Academy, but the Tomahawks still have high goals after last year’s 5-1 defeat to Hanover in the state final.
Last year’s tourney run was “both a huge confidence builder and a motivator for us,” Cappello said.
Algonquin will lean on its three captains, senior forwards Tom Paterson and Kevin Reale and junior defenseman Nate Anderson.
Nashoba plays its first regular season game on Monday at home against Groton-Dunstable. Franklin and Algonquin will both start on Wednesday, as the Panthers take on Bridgewater-Raynham and the Tomahawks face off with Marlborough.
Medfield opened its regular season with a game against Norton on Saturday.
Alex Schroeder can be reached at email@example.com.