With the start of every new hockey season, coaches are faced with the task of reloading for the year ahead, relying on local youth hockey programs to churn out new talent and increase participation in the sport.
Nowhere is that more apparent than at Austin Prep. Led by coach Stephanie Wood in her seventh season at the helm, along with fellow Northeastern hockey graduate Nikki Petrich, Austin Prep has become a successful program where players want to develop.
The team finished 21-1-2 last season, falling in the Division 1 semifinals.
“At the high school age, it can be an asset to be at a private school,” said Wood. “But certain things have to align geographically or financially. We’re competing with local area public schools.”
Wood also has a knack for identifying and developing talented young players. Serving as the Director of Women’s Hockey for the Islanders Hockey Club, Wood oversees teams from the U8 level all the way up to U19 as well as running showcases and clinics.
This non-stop hockey life has made it possible for Wood to form relationships with several area players, attracting them to the Austin Prep program, like senior forwards Isabella Saracco of Melrose and Maeve Crehan of Reading.
Though for Wood, reloading a private school program is difficult with girls who haven’t played together.
“The challenge is we don’t have one pipeline to pull from,” said Wood. “It’s neat to build a program from the ground up, our roster is pretty diverse.”
This year, the Cougars return core players like junior defender Francesca Frelick of Lexington and welcome in new players like freshman Aylah Cioffi of Revere, who transferred from St. Mary’s.
With such diverse talent from different area towns, an emphasis is placed on practices over scrimmages. Those early morning sessions begin at 6 a.m., requiring the type of dedication needed to make a deep run in the state tournament.
“Sometimes talent doesn’t matter,” said Wood. “I like to stay away from predictions but we’ll be pretty disappointed if we don’t win it this year.”
In Division 2, Westwood has seen its youth numbers improve dramatically in recent years, resulting in the ability to reload successfully at the high school level.
As the popularity of women’s hockey has increased, so, too, has participation in the town’s programs. For the first time this season, Westwood has a girls’ JV team with 10 players.
“[The girls] are coming to high school prepared,” said Westwood coach Ed Amico. “The adult volunteers, the coaching, the skills from a very young age, they’re the ones that are responsible for what you see on that ice today.”
This season, Westwood returns eight seniors including last year’s top scorer Kat Keith, who has 120 career points. Sophomore forward Hannah Blomquist and freshman defender Meghan McDonough are poised to play big roles as well.
“It’s a culture we’re trying to build on and off the ice,” said Amico. “I hope people look at people like Kat and say ‘I can stay at Westwood and be really successful.’ You can play in college by playing for your public school team.”
Reigning D2 state champion Wellesley has been to the state finals in four of the last five seasons and had 37 girls try out for this year’s team. Coach P.T. Donato credits local youth programs for helping to bolster the team’s ranks.
“We’re very fortunate to have a strong youth girls’ hockey program,” said Donato. “Families are very supportive of Wellesley athletics. We’re a little luckier than other towns.”
Among the roughly 15 key returners from the reigning championship team are juniors Mackenzie O’Neill , returning from an 18-goal, 20-assist season, and goalie Liddy Schultz.
“We’re fortunate to have a returning core group of girls that played a lot during the state championship run,” said Donato. “These are girls that can show the way to the younger girls.”
Games to Watch
Wednesday, Duxbury at Cohasset/Hanover (at Randolph), 3:30 p.m. – It’s an early road test for the talented Dragons against a capable Skippers team.
Wednesday, Plymouth at Canton, 6 p.m. – A battle of two evenly matched teams in different divisions could set the tone for the early season.
Wednesday, HPNA at Methuen/Tewksbury, 7 p.m. – The HPNA co-op looks to wrestle power in D1 North away from Methuen/Tewksbury.
Saturday, Matignon at Austin Prep, 8:10 p.m. – After toppling Connecticut powerhouse East Catholic, Division 1 favorite Austin Prep takes the ice against league foe Matignon.Correspondents Jenna Ciccotelli and Lenny Rowe also contributed to this story.