Some people had the East Haven boys’ ice hockey team counted out through its first 11 games this winter. With the Yellowjackets sitting at 2-6-3, there were question marks about whether they had what it took to reach the State Tournament for the 30th-consecutive season. That would have been a first for Head Coach Lou Pane in year No. 30 at the helm, but a late-season surge propelled East Haven into the Division II State Tournament, where they defeated Conard and Branford to reach the semifinals.
“We knew we weren’t the most talented guys, but we had the will to win and to continue to work hard to turn it around,” Pane said. “When we were struggling to win, we continued to work hard in practice. Good things were ahead of us and all the hard work and determination really proved out through the end of the season where we made the semifinal at Ingalls and were No. 4 in final Division II Poll.”
Coach Pane said he could feel the tide turning in his club’s 12th game of the season—a 4-3 win at Watertown-Pomperaug.
“I think the game that really propelled the team was at Watertown. We went up there, won a close game, and it was a one-goal game that we pulled out,” he said. “The boys started to feel good about themselves.”
The victory fueled confidence into the Yellowjackets and boosted them toward another big one when they earned a 5-4 home win over Hamden, which wound up finishing ranked No. 7 overall in the state this season.
“In preparation for Hamden, we built a lot of confidence and it propelled us. It made us believe we could beat them. We saw some video and knew there were a few things we could do to expose some things on them,” Pane said. “That win over Watertown catapulted us to that win, which nobody expected. Then we went on to win a few games.”
East Haven won four of its final five regular season games and then won a pair in states to finish 9-10-4. As the 12th-seeded team in the DII state bracket, East Haven topped No. 5 Conard 5-2 in the first round and then defeated No. 13 Branford 3-0 in the quarterfinals before losing to top seed North Branford 7-1 in the semis.
“We did some special things towards end of the season. Nobody gave us a chance against Conard, but we handled them. Then we beat a good Branford team who we had beaten just two weeks ago,” Pane said. “There were some special things and then we ran into a buzzsaw in North Branford, who was the last team to beat us in the regular season.
East Haven’s last loss to a team not named North Branford had come on Feb. 3 against Division I squad Simsbury. A few weeks later, Coach Pane earned career victory No. 400 from behind the bench with a 6-0 victory over Masuk.
“It was very rewarding. At a certain point in the season, I kind of thought I wouldn’t get it this year. The guys really came together during that run. We were on the road playing Masuk, not knowing how good they were, and we played real well,” Pane said. “To accomplish 400 wins is very rewarding. It’s humbling to think a lot of people would recognize you for it. I’ve been here for a while and am proud of that accomplishment. There’s a lot of hard work by the players through the years that put up a lot of wins for us and the program. To be here for 400 was gratifying.”
Senior defenseman Joseph D’Albero was East Haven’s lone captain this year and a First Team All-SCC/SWC Division II selection, as well as a member of the Second Team Division II All-State squad, the recipient of Pane’s Coaches Award, and the winner of the Yellowjackets’ Hobey Baker Award for character and sportsmanship.
“He had the will to win, great leadership qualities, and logged about 38 out of 45 minutes per game,” Pane said. “I couldn’t ask more of a captain and quality kid. He’s probably one of our top captains we’ve had here at East Haven.”
Wearing the ‘A’ on their jerseys as assistant captains were fellow seniors John Monaco and Nick Latella, along with junior Joe Aloi. Aloi led East Haven with 49 points (24 goals, 25 assists) and was a First Team All-Conference and Second Team DII All-State selection. Latella earned Pane’s Unsung Hero Award and was second on the team in scoring with 35 points (18 goals, 17 assists). Monaco played many minutes alongside D’Albero as the team’s top defensive pairing.
In net, sophomore Matt Twarowski took charge and progressed greatly as the year moved along.
“Early on, he played some great games, but was inconsistent. As the year went on, he was more consistent, kept us in games, recorded his second shutout in a tournament game against Branford,” Pane said. “Being a first-year goaltender playing in the playoffs for the first time as an underdog, some younger guys get rattled. He didn’t. He held his composure, which shows he came full circle.”
The Yellowjackets had just three seniors on their roster this year and so they aren’t graduating a ton of players, although finding ways to fill the void left by D’Albero, Latella, and Monaco won’t be easy for Pane, who hopes to continue his run of state tourney appearances and pile onto his 403 victories next season.
“We don’t graduate many numbers, but in those three guys we graduate, there is so much character, talent, and desire to win out of those three guys. It’s tough to replace,” Pane said. “We’re looking forward to next year’s team. We have a good core coming back and a lot of guys gained experience. We have four or five new kids that we’re going to be excited about, so we hope we get back to Ingalls next year.”
• Regular season wins for the Yellowjackets this season came against Newington (7-1), Wilton (11-2), Watertown-Pomperaug (4-3), Hamden (5-4), Norwich Free Academy (7-1), Masuk (6-0), and Branford (5-3). East Haven then posted State Tournament victories over Conard (5-2) and Branford (3-0).
• East Haven’s regular season losses came at the hands of Cheshire (5-1), New Milford (4-3), North Haven (6-3), West Haven (9-3), Hand (3-2), Guilford (5-4) SWS (3-0), Simsbury (5-1), and North Branford (6-3). The Easties also were defeated by North Branford 7-1 in states.
• The Yellowjackets finished with four ties this season. Those came against Westhill-Stamford (3-3), Trumbull (2-2), Milford (4-4), and Amity (3-3).