The Braintree girls’ hockey team skated with nine players last season. Their top players were often on the ice for nearly 40 minutes per game.
Somehow, the Wamps managed to win six games, their 6-9-2 campaign ending with a shutout loss to Duxbury in the preliminary round of the Division 1 state tournament.
How times have changed, in skaters (18, plus two goalies), and in wins (10).
“I [now] have seven seniors who are ready, they’ve played, they get it, what the Hingham Showcase means,” said 16-year Braintree coach Kevin Burchill , referencing next week’s tourney in the final week of the regular season.
“The nine freshmen, I have to really prepare the girls. The first three quarters of the season, I had to be very hard on them. We get a little bit better each week.”
At 10-4-1, Braintree will close the regular season with games against Milton (Wednesday), Weymouth (Saturday), Hingham (Sunday), Reading (Tuesday), and St. Mary’s (Thursday).
“We use the Readings, St. Mary’s, the Hinghams as a benchmark,” Burchill said. “They’re all going to be there in the end, but I don’t think one of them has a girl who can get through us and score.”
“It’s a really good way to prepare,” said Burchill’s daughter, Deirdre , a 5-foot-2 senior wing who is the team’s leading scorer (10 goals, 12 assists).
“The best teams in the state and we have an opportunity to face them, and it’s our biggest test.”
Nine freshmen is a far cry from a team struggling to put a roster together. But that youth has had its own challenges, including Burchill teaching a group that had never truly played in a system.
One of the first-year players is the starting goalie, freshman Ellie Foley.
“The speed is a lot faster,” she said.
“But we have good practices, and throughout practice the senior leaders do a good job to help all of us and give us a workout.”
Foley played two years of youth hockey where she was “put in goal” and decided to stick with the position.
“She’s a natural,” said the elder Burchill. “She did things effortlessly, I’ve seen girls playing their whole life who will just go straight post to post, she’ll make the pad save. She’s just gotten better.”
Foley, said Deirdre Burchill, is a “rock star.”
“She makes unreal saves, and we’re always like ‘wow,’” she said. “It’s amazing she’s only played two years.”
The influx of newcomers has given Burchill his largest roster to date. At one point last season, he was down to seven players because of injury.
“It was a whole season of concern,” said the coach.
“It was tough. This season is a new luxury, every girl is replaceable, all the freshmen are good enough skaters to step right in and succeed.”
And they have followed the lead of their captains, Annie Lee , Katie Yaxter (18 points), and Burchill, who have been instrumental in the growth of the program.
“This year I did something different,” said the coach.
“I told the seniors to write the do’s and don’ts with coach Burchill, and it turned out to be a blueprint for the freshmen.”
Both three-sport athletes at the high school, Deirdre Burchill and Yaxter have been teammates since age 10.
“At 4-5 years old, [Deirdre] was always on the bus with me or skating around the team,” Burchill said of his daughter. “She’s always understood the attitude and wanted to play for Braintree.”
Said Yaxter, “We’ve encouraged each other the entire time. We’ve always been together on the top line, even when coach will mix it up, we always play together. We do so well together.”
The younger Burchill was recruited by private schools, but chose to be a three-sport athlete at Braintree. She, Yaxter,and Lee also play field hockey and lacrosse.
“Katie [Yaxter] had two older sisters who were captains so she also was always around,” said Burchill. “They’ve been playing together for 10 years, and it prepared them, being around the team, without ever knowing it.”
“We had a big freshman class my year, and the seniors were great,” Yaxter said. “I want to do that for them too, and they haven’t been scared or anything.”
And Kevin Burchill believes his squad is prepped for upcoming stretch of games and beyond.
“There’s no fear from any player on Braintree girls’ hockey this year,” he said.
■ Tewksbury/Methuen (12-1-3) has locked up a tourney spot, but is fielding one of its younger teams in some time, with just five upperclassmen.
“It’s been an interesting year,” said coach Sarah Oteri. “There’s lots of young girls, and we really have four or five leaders. There’s a big discrepancy. It was intriguing at first, but the young girls have brought new energy and always try to get better.”
One of those leaders is junior Kelly Golini (29 goals, 19 assits).
“She’s a natural goal scorer,” said Oteri. “She works really hard, and she plays on a line with Carolyn Curley , a sophomore who has played well, and they’re great together.
Oteri also noted the play of freshman Lydia Pendleton (5 goals, 10 assists).
The Red Rangers have three eighth graders and a seventh grader on their roster, but that top line has produced the most points.
The young talent is also visible in net: freshman Kaia Hollingsworth has registered a 1.48 goals against average while seventh grader Michelle Kusmau l has also seen time.
“They’re both the backbones of this team,” Oteri said. “The girls are confident in them, and you can’t beat that.”
With four games left, the Red Rangers have two against top 20 teams Boston Latin and Haverhill, and are looking to enter the playoffs on a high note.
“We have a good base,” said Oteri. “We just have to tighten up where we need to tighten up, and be stronger and smoother, and we’ll be ready to go.”
Players of the Week
Aylah Cioffli, St. Mary’s: With all the goals in a 3-1 victory over Archbishop Williams, the 7th grader continues to lead the Spartans in scoring.
Daphne Frantzis, Brookline: The sophomore goalie made 38 saves in a 2-1 victory against Milton, shutting down two of the top five scorers in Eastern Mass.
Kat Keith and Nicole Schneiders , Westwood: The sophomores combined for eight points in a 6-0 win against Franklin. The two have a combined 59 points this season.
Maggie Young, Boston Latin : The sophomore scored twice for the Wolfpack (16-1-2) in a 2-1 win over Haverhill.
Games of the Week
■ Wednesday, Woburn at Reading, 7:45: A matchup of two of the two teams in Eastern Mass.
■ Saturday, St. Mary’s vs. Austin Prep, 5:50: The two Catholic Central powers skated to a draw on Feb. 1. This matchup will be at the Essex Sports Center in Middleton.
■ Sunday, Hingham at Braintree, 12: The Harbormen (8-5-5-) take on Fontbonne Wednesday before facing a 10-4-1 Wamp squad faces Milton (Wednesday) and Weymouth (Saturday) before the Sunday matinee.
■ Monday, Needham at Notre Dame Academy, 9:50 a.m. Undefeated entering Wednesday’s tilt against Welellsey, Needham faces a NDA squad that was 15-0-0 entering Thursday’s game against Fontbonne.
■ Monday, Tewksbury/Methuen at Haverhill, 3: The Hillies host a Tewksbury/Methuen team undefeated in the MVC/DCL.