METHUEN – A year after winning the Division 1 state championship title, the Tewksbury/Methuen co-op girls' hockey team entered last season knowing that a handful of talented players had graduated, while a total of 94 goals had also left the program.
Yet last year's season was a complete success. The Red Rangers qualified for the state tournament for the fourth straight year under head coach Sarah Oteri, defeated Longmeadow before losing to an excellent Woburn squad, who later was crowned co-state champions along with Austin Prep after the pandemic wiped out that game. The Red Rangers finished with an 11-5-6 record, giving Oteri an incredible mark of 90-12-15.
Now comes this season which is completely different for so many reasons. First, it's the abbreviated COVID-19 season, so the Red Rangers are playing just 12 games, three each against HPNA (Haverhill/Pentucket Regional/North Andover), Billerica/Chelmsford, Andover and Central Catholic with no state tournament, and no fans in the stands. There's new safety protocols on and off the ice that the coaches and players have to adhere to, and on top of all that, this year's team returns just nine players with varsity experience with half of those minimal amount of ice. The team welcomes in 15 new players including six freshmen and seven eighth graders.
Certainly Oteri and her staff will have its challenges.
“In terms of the new protocols and the pandemic, I think we are all handling them very well,” she said. “Safety always comes first and the girls have been very careful and we are taking all necessary precautions. I feel really good about that our team is being really careful and safe.
“It's been a little tricky if girls have been in close contact (with others who may have the virus), or if they haven't been feeling well, or anything really, we advise them to stay home just to be on the side of caution, which again goes back to keeping everyone safe and we all feel really good about that. At any given time, we are missing, three, four, five or even up to six girls at a practice so that's been a little bit tricky to gel with so many new girls (on this year's team).”
The Red Rangers open their season on Monday against Billerica and as of this past Monday night, the team has yet to have a practice with all 24 players present.
“It's extremely hard. We make lines and we change lines. We go over our forecheck and then we have to go over our forecheck again,” said Oteri. “It's definitely very challenging but we're looking at with a positive attitude. Any time we have on the ice, any time we have time to work on skills and getting acclimated to each other and our systems, is a bonus this year. None of us have any complaints and all of the girls have had such positive attitudes. It's tricky but we're all embracing that challenge.
“It's hard when we're missing girls and we have to make a lot of changes. We are doing what we can, focusing on what we can, and adapting anyway we can see it benefitting the girls. Either way they are on the ice, they are with each other and are learning these skills so we're just thinking about the positives.”
Being a co-op program also has its challenges and Oteri said despite the pandemic, this year has remained the same in terms of the players coming from two different towns and four different schools (counting each Jr. High).
“We have a pretty good system that we have been using for a few years now. I don't think it's harder because of the two schools, just we're being extra careful so we have girls missing at times,” she said. “If they have a runny nose, we are asking them to stay home and to wait it out, just so everyone else can stay safe.”
Gone from last year's team are nine seniors, including one of the state's top goalies Kaia Hollingsworth, as well as three very talented defensemen in Brenna Greene, Madi Sjostedt and Tori Schille, and then a few forwards who could all find the back of the net, including Tewksbury residents Ryan Quinn, Lydia Pendleton and Abby O'Keefe.
While 94 goals were lost from the 2018-'19 team, the '19-'20 team saw now junior captain Jessica Driscoll go from scoring six goals as a sophomore, to popping in 25 as a sophomore. She is one of the nine returners along with fellow seniors Tory Sweeney and Madison Robillard, juniors Kylie Winsor and Michelle Kusmaul, along with sophomores Nikole Gosse, Hannah Forget and Riley Sheehan.
Sweeney, Robillard, assistant captain Raymond, Driscoll, Kusmaul, Gosse and Sheehan are all from Tewksbury. Driscoll along with Sheehan, Sweeney, Gosse and Windsor are forwards, while Raymond, Robillard and Forget are defensemen. Kusmaul, who was a back-up to Hollingsworth each of the past four years, takes over as the No. 1 goalie, with eighth grader Seasha Wogan serving as the back-up.
“Michelle has improved a lot since we had her as a seventh grader,” said Oteri. “She's been playing under Kaia and I think she worked really well with Kaia and has learned a lot. I think it's Michelle's time to shine and her time to show us everything that she is capable of. Seasha is a great addition and she's really happy to be here with us. She's positive and as an eighth grader, she can learn so much and how to stop tough, competitive shots, and we're looking for her to get better while being with us at the varsity level.”
The older newcomers include junior Maci Chapman and sophomore Jamie Constantino, both of Tewksbury. Chapman grew up playing in the Tewksbury Youth Hockey Association but stopped when she focused on being a three-season runner. With the track season pushed off to Fall Season-2, she quickly dug her skates back out of the closet.
“Maci seems really athletic. She has taken a couple of years off from playing hockey, which is a little bit unfortunate but she is athletic and she wants to get better,” said Oteri.
Chapman will be in the mix up front along with freshmen Emma Giordano, Emma Ryan and Kat Schille, all of Tewksbury, and eighth grader Brooke Barb of Methuen.
“We definitely have some girls who have a nose for the net, that's for sure, so it's just about getting that strength with the younger players and learning how to play competitively at the varsity level,” said Oteri.
Defensively, both Raymond and Robillard return with the most minutes, while Forget also saw some time there.
“Alexis saw the most minutes last year and Madison has been on the team for a couple of years now and she definitely understands our system and our culture. MJ Petisce is from Methuen and she's pretty competitive and pretty strong,” said Oteri. “We're going to have basically a whole new group back there on defense. We graduated nine girls from last year's team and (three of them were defensemen) so it's expected to have new players there. We're just taking it day-by-day and really working on those skills and fundamentals.”
Other newcomers include freshmen Ava Duffy, Jaylen Marsh and Lexi Ford, as well as eighth graders Harb, Petisce, Breena and Livia Lawrence, and Tewksbury residents Sarah Doherty and Corrine Foley.
“We have some talent there but we are young,” said the coach. “We are taking some time to work on those fundamentals, to work on those skills and use this year to get better individually and to get better as a team. We're looking at it as we want to spend as much time together as we can since we have so many young and new girls, so we kind of need to go back to those basics a little bit.
“I think it's going to be a different season overall because of the pandemic, but also because we're so young and because there's no state tournament. I'm really looking at this year to be competitive because that's what our program is about as we want to win, but I really just want to see the girls improve and have an enjoyable experience as well.”
The Red Rangers will open the season on Monday with a trip to the Hallenborg Arena to take on Billerica/Chelmsford at 5 pm before hosting Andover on the 13th at 4:30 pm.