METHUEN – When you are a hockey coach, certainly a satisfying feeling is when your team plays a complete game and comes out with the ‘W’.
A complete game would be full effort and execution for all three periods and in all three zones, offensive, neutral and defensive.
Last Wednesday afternoon, the Tewksbury/Methuen co-op girls' hockey team certainly did that as the Red Rangers continue to dial up their intensity, energy and overall level of play over these last few weeks.
The complete game, played at Methuen High, led to a 3-1 victory over a tough Andover squad and that win pushed the Red Rangers into the No. 2 seed in this upcoming week's Merrimack Valley Conference Cup Championship tournament.
The Red Rangers — coupled with a win over Central Catholic three days later — have now won five-of-its-last-six games and closed out the regular season with a 7-4 record, an incredible accomplishment considering the majority of the team is underclassmen and middle school aged kids.
“This was a great win for us. We played fantastic and I thought it was the best that we have seen the girls play this season. It was a complete game and we didn't have many lapses, which was good,” said head coach Sarah Oteri, who won her 97th game as head coach, now in her fifth season. “We kind of know what they like to do and we tried to prevent that, but again that's up to the girls (to go out and execute the game plans) and that was great to see (that they did).”
Andover had a 1-0 lead after the first period even though the Red Rangers held the territory and possession edge, and outshot the Warriors, 11-6.
Around the seven minute mark of the second, the Red Rangers started to mount the offensive chances and started to put together some solid offensive chances. One of those chances came when Brooke Harb was tripped up which led to a power play. At the tail end of that advantage, junior captain Jessica Driscoll came flying through the neutral zone and as she entered the Andover zone, at the top of the right circle, she showed off her blazing wrist shot, putting it to the top far corner to tie the game up at 1-1.
With under three minutes to go, Driscoll was able to grab a loose puck in the neutral zone and she absolutely exploded with speed, and her low shot was saved on a great bid. Certainly that first step for Driscoll is a vast improvement from last year.
“Definitely (I agree),” said Oteri. “That is something that we talked about over the summer with what she needed to improve on. She has put into the effort to definitely do that.”
Driscoll wasn't done yet. With seconds ticking down in the period, the Red Rangers were on another power play. Defenseman MJ Petisce — who had a real strong game — was at the right point and she slid the puck over to partner Alexis Raymond. She slid the puck down to Driscoll at the half wall. She then came back towards Raymond, before circling towards the net and scored on a low wrist shot through the five-hole for what ended up being the game-winner.
Certainly this shot was good strategy, after Driscoll had gone high the previous handful of shots.
Driscoll then set up the much needed insurance goal with under five minutes left in the game as Harb put home a rebound to make it 3-1. The Red Rangers then hung on from their to win the series over the Warriors, two games to one.
“Honestly, I thought everyone played well and played to their strengths. We have been talking about that lately, for the girls to focus and play the game that works best for you as a player,” said Oteri “Don't try to go out and do everything. Do what's best for you, what you are good at and that will help the team because your strength and another girl's strength are going to come together.”
In the first meeting, the Red Rangers were defeated by Andover 7-1 and then they came back to win the next two meetings with scores of 2-0 and now 3-1.
“We have had great practices and it's quick learning (from these players),” said Oteri about the turnaround and the incredible improvement over these six weeks of the season. “The girls are really listening to what we are saying and they are really trying to apply what we go over in practice and put it into a game situation because we can teach them things or say things to them, but they have to be the ones who go out there and do it. I think (the improvement) is about quick adjusting and learning as we definitely have some smart hockey players.
“We definitely have a young team but I think they are all really excited to be here which is good. Our older leadership from the juniors and seniors has really been helping to teach these girls what our culture is all about. We're playing these teams multiple times so every single game is so close. You know that you're going to walk in here and it's going to be a one or two goal game so I think that's really exciting.”
One aspect that has been noticeable across the board with every member of the team is the improvement in skating.
“The beginning of the year we were really focusing in on the fundamentals, skating, passing, puck control, so we really tried to keep it basic. Then once we started playing teams twice and three times, we started to add more strategy in and I am just so proud with how much they have taken what we have said and using it,” said Oteri.
While Driscoll and Harb have led the way offensively, the team's primary four defensemen have been terrific, including Petisce, Raymond, Emma Giordano and Livia Lawrence. Certainly assistant coach Dave Ahern, a former standout defenseman for Methuen back in the mid 1990s, is a big reason for that success.
“He's phenomenal. He basically runs the defense fully and Coach (Brianna) McCarthy does a good job with the forwards as well and I get to bop around be my crazy self,” said Oteri with a laugh. “Dave is just great with the defensemen. He knows a lot about defensive zone strategies and how to get those players better, so having him here with us is just so helpful.”
In the 6-1 win over CC, six different girls scored including Nikole Gosse, Driscoll, Riley Sheehan, Harb, Kat Schille and Tory Sweeney. Petisce picked up two assists, Harb and Sheehan had one each and Tewksbury's Sarah Doherty — out all season after going through her second brain surgery — returned to the ice and had one assist on Sweeney's tally.
“It was great night. We got a lot of girls some playing time. We had six different goal scorers. Michelle (Kusmaul) played great in net and we got (back-up goalie) Saesha (Wogan) in a little bit in the third period. It was a good overall team win.”
The game was also senior night for three girls, including assistant captain Alexis Raymond, Madison Robillard and Tory Sweeney, all three from Tewksbury.
“All three of them are great leaders. They have battled through a really tough season, but they have been positive throughout everything,” said Oteri. “They have been really committed to our team to get whatever we can out of this season. I think it just really shows our leadership, our culture and they definitely really bring that every single day.”
Raymond takes a regular shift as one of the four defensemen and just has played magnificent this season.
“Alexis has greatly improved from when we first had her when she was younger. She is just so much more confident now, she's determined to help the team in any way that she can, so she has definitely improved a lot,” said Oteri. “She is a really good skater so I think it's just putting all of the right elements together and she has done that over the last few years and she plays with some good confidence.”