Town Crier

MIDDLETON — Henry Ford, the celebrated founder behind the Ford Motor Company once said, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”

Earlier this year, it was determined by Wilmington school officials, including Athletic Director Mia Muzio, that the girl’s hockey program was in serious jeopardy. Early indications pointed to a lack of participants, insufficient numbers to deploy a team.

In recent years, as little as fifteen players came out for the Wildcats – minimal, but workable. But for the 2021-22 season, it was forecast that only nine or ten girls were on tap to lace up for the team. Oddly enough, nearby Stoneham High School was experiencing the same dearth of candidates. The obvious solution was to combine the teams as one, in a co-operative format.

In other regional communities, the co-op format has proven successful. North Reading, Lynnfield and Peabody, for instance, merged ten years ago and for three straight seasons, have claimed titles. And Melrose, which recently emerged from the co-op system, combined with Stoneham during a temporary player drought.

As Stoneham-Wilmington embarks on a full slate of twenty games, the obvious questions have been addressed by school officials. The team nicknames, Spartans and Wildcats, will be shelved for the time being. For away games, the girls will wear Wilmington blue jerseys while home contests will feature Stoneham white. And perhaps, the most pressing question of all, the combined 18-player team will be co-coached by Wilmington’s John Lapiana and Stoneham’s Cassandra Connolly.

“It’s a collaborative thing,” said Lapiana, in his fifth year, who was previously a longtime assistant coach with Matignon. “Decisions are made by committee. It’s not what either of us are used to but we’re off to a really good start and I’m very optimistic about the relationship.”

Certainly, there are a number of obstacles to overcome in a co-op format, particularly the melding of two hockey programs that for many years were adversaries on the ice.

“That was an early challenge that was definitely on my mind,” admitted Lapiana. “So we began by having summer workouts at the high school, not hockey-related, but for strength and conditioning. The idea was to gain physical fitness but also break the ice. We had a couple of unofficial things, like ice cream at my house. The girls have also done a few things on their own, and it’s coming together really quickly.”

“There haven’t been any issues at all,” agreed co-coach Connolly. “They’ve done a great job on-and-off the ice getting along with one another.”

From a player prospect standpoint, there are high hopes for the Wilmington offensive line which is designated as the “white” line. Junior Gabby Daniels, who was third in scoring last season with the Wildcats, will center sophomore Lily MacKenzie on the right wing and junior Katelin Halley on the left.

“They’ve been playing together for awhile,” said Lapiana. “They’re back together this year and looking very sharp. They’re a junior line and it’s the juniors turn to step-up and contribute offense.”

From the Stoneham contingent, Connolly looks for offense from a line known as the “blue” line which is made up of senior Kaylee Cronin, junior Sofjia Romanowski, and junior Ava Krasco.

“I’m hoping they can work off each other and deliver,” said the co-coach, who played her high school hockey with Woburn and later, University of New England at the collegiate level before moving to the coaching ranks four years ago.

The “red” line is a mix of athletes from both schools, featuring Stoneham sophomore Grace Tobias centering sophomore Marisa Thorne and Wilmington senior Sofia Brunetto.

Reserve forwards include Wilmington’s Julia Archer and Stoneham’s Grace Bonner, both sophomores.

Wilmington representatives tasked with defensive duties include sophomore Emma Flynn, senior Kiley Flynn, and sophomore Ashley Mercier while Stoneham blue-liners include junior Sophia Carpentieri, junior Gabriella Sacco, and freshman Isabella Shirtcliff.

While all of the games on the docket have equal importance, Lapiana seems to have certain teams red-circled on the calendar.

“Melrose has their own team back this year and that should be interesting,” he said. “We’ll also see other quality opponents including Burlington, Reading, and Wakefield. But we have a good group and good talent. We’re hoping to make a little noise in the Middlesex League.”

The new look Stoneham-Wilmington co-op team was put to the test last Saturday night at the Essex Sports Center in Middleton. While there were strong points to be taken from the season-opener, particularly in the third period, non-league opponent Bishop Fenwick proved a half-dozen goals better in a 7-1 tilt.

Wilmington sophomore Ashley Mercier snapped the game-long shutout on a power play with 1:36 remaining. Stoneham’s Krasco provided the helper on the team’s first goal of the new season.

The team’s lone goaltender, Wilmington sophomore Maddie Sainato turned in a remarkable performance, turning aside 29-shots.

“Maddie showed up this year better than ever,” said Lapiana. “She looks sharp and is very mobile, moving well post-to-post and squaring to the puck. She looked fabulous.”

“I think she stood on her head tonight,” added Connolly. “She saw a lot of shots. Bishop Fenwick can obviously shoot the puck and they can pick the corners so I agree that Maddie did a really good job.”

Stoneham-Wilmington traveled to face Belmont Wednesday night (results in after press time) and will next host Woburn on Saturday at 4 p.m.

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