WILMINGTON – Heading into Wednesday's season opener with Burlington, the Wilmington High School boys' hockey team will have just two practices under their belts with the entire team present.
Welcome to the COVID-19 abbreviated season where everyday is a challenge!
In a normal season, the 'Cats are challenged game in and game out due to its rigorous schedule, facing some of the best teams in the state coming from the highly competitive Middlesex League. That still stands this year as the 'Cats will play ten games, all against the Freedom Division opponents, starting with the Red Devils, a 14-win squad which competed in the Super-8 tournament a year ago.
“Things are going to be strange,” said Scanlon, now entering his 31st season as coach. “We experienced it with several players missing for a while and Burlington has experienced it. It'll go on all winter long. We just practiced the other day for the first time with everyone, so Tuesday we're hoping to have the second practice with everyone and then we open on Wednesday. Burlington is in the same boat. They are just coming off of being shut down so I can't see a big advantage. They have been one of the top teams in the state over the last ten years so we know that they're going to be a handful.”
Thus far in the pre-season, Wilmington has had players come and go in practices. Burlington is in the same boat — as they Red Devils were shut down for two weeks. If and when the 'Cats do get a full line-up, and hopefully that starts Wednesday and carries over to Saturday's home opener against the same Burlington Club, Scanlon knows he has a strong defensive core to build around.
“Strength wise will be defensively for us,” he said. “We have five returning defensemen and two good goalies, but we're replacing a lot of goals. We lost three kids who scored 10, 11 and 12 goals each, so that's 33 goals right there. We don't have a proven goal scorer right now so scoring goals will be a wait and see thing.”
Last year the Wildcats finished with an overall record of 10-9-3, which included a first round state tournament win over Marblehead before losing to the eventual sectional finalists and former Cape Ann League rival, Triton Regional. In the second half of that season, then junior Sam Cedrone took over as the team's top goalie and played absolutely phenomenal. The year before, then sophomore Alex Fitzler took over the duties in the second half and he also tremendous. He missed all of last year due to a knee injury. He is now healthy and is battling Cedrone for the top spot.
“Cedrone had a great season (for us last year),” said Scanlon. “Fitzler I'm thinking is going to bounce back. In soccer, he didn't lose a minute to that knee injury, so I think he'll be fine. Right off the bat, we're going to alternate them as they'll each get a game this week. Then see where it goes from there.”
The goalies are two of 12 seniors on the team. Four other seniors include assistant captain and defensemen Matt Pendenza, along with CJ Petrie, Anthony Savage and James Kourkoutas. They will be joined by junior Aidan Murphy and fellow junior Matt Vinal, a transfer from Austin Prep.
“Matt was a league all-star last year and he, CJ and James all played significant minutes. Vinal looks to be a solid addition as well,” said Scanlon.
With just two practices in hand, Scanlon had no idea what his forward lines would look like at the time this story went to print. He knows that he has four players with varsity experience returning and two others who have limited experience. Captain Peter Kourkoutas is a big, strong player who can be a physical presence in front of the net. Then scrappy players like assistant captain Chris Bernazani and the Gallucci Twins, Derek and Drew, also return, as does Robert Courtney and Jason Davey, who is back after playing two years ago.
“Davey can play a little bit. He can kill penalties and take a regular shift. He's a senior and he has a good build on him, so he's a pretty rugged player,” said Scanlon.
The newcomers include juniors William Alworth, Tristan DiMeco and Nate Packer, as well as sophomores Owen White, Michael Daniels and Nathan Aliberti.
“Mike Daniels is good sized kid and has good skills. Nate Aliberti is a pretty good skilled player. Alworth is a real worker and DiMeco has good speed,” said Scanlon.
Due to the pandemic, there are rule changes and protocols to follow for this season. All players will have to wear masks at all times, the bench areas have been extended to meet social distance protocols, and on the ice, officials will be tasked with separating face-off participants by six feet, as well as disallowing scrums of any more than two players and not to exceed five seconds in duration. A third player attempting to gain control of a puck along the boards or in the corners will draw a whistle.
While all of the new rules will be an adjustment, facing ten real quality opponents certainly won't be an adjustment, since every year the 'Cats face 20. Burlington was 14-6-4 last year, went to the Super-8 and return one of the top goalies in the entire state. Melrose was 11-8-3 and were slated to return three players who combined to score 49 goals and add 67 assists for 116 points.
Stoneham had eight wins and are led by a real talented sophomore sniper. Wakefield won 11 games and return 14 players, including nine seniors. Then Watertown returns to league play for the first time since the 2016-'17 season after going independent for the last few years. The Red Raiders won 13 games last year and return almost its entire core of players, who are mostly juniors.
“You are playing within your division so you are pretty familiar with the teams,” said Scanlon. “Burlington is the cream of the crop. Melrose if they are all back should be good, but I heard rumors that a few of their top players left, so not sure about that. But this should be their year as that core of players are all seniors now.”