There is a time-tested adage in sports that it’s tough to beat a team three times in one season. When the Guilford boys’ ice hockey squad faced Watertown-Pomperaug in the Division II State Tournament final, the Indians were in danger of taking their third loss to their familiar foe this year as they trailed by a goal through the first two periods. However, on the strength of the unwavering resolve, strong offense, and stingy defense that it featured all season, Guilford scored four goals in the third period to beat Watertown-Pomperaug when it mattered most and walk out of Ingalls Rink with the Division II state championship.
The 4th-seeded Indians met No. 2 Watertown-Pomperaug (W-P) with the Division II title on the line at Ingalls Rink on March 18. W-P had won its two regular season matchups against Guilford this winter, but in the teams’ third meeting on the state’s biggest stage, the Indians rallied for a 5-3 victory to claim the program’s third state title, its first since 2010, and its first Division II crown since 1994. Guilford trailed 2-1 heading to the final frame, but stormed back behind four goals, including the go-ahead score from sophomore John Delucia that made it 4-3 with 3:10 to play. Senior captain Ricky Sandella assisted on Delucia’s winning goal and also recorded a hat trick for the Indians, who finished the season with a record of 21-5, as well as the SCC/SWC Division II Tournament title.
“I am speechless. Going into this game, we knew what we had to do to win, and we went out and executed,” said Sandella. “I love everyone on this team, along with the coaches. This title means more to me than anything. [Watertown-Pomperaug] is a great team. Hats off to them.”
Along with Sandella’s hat trick and Delucia’s game-winner, sophomore Jack Ring scored Guilford’s other goal on an empty-netter for a 5-3 lead that put the game away with 1:25 remaining. The Indians were outshot 26-15, but senior captain goalie Kyle Dwyer made 23 saves in net. Guilford took seven shots on goal to W-P’s five in the decisive third period, including the one off the stick of Delucia that put the Indians ahead for good.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to win the state championship and it was awesome to do it with this group of guys. Our seniors have put in plenty of hard work and it’s nice to send them off on a positive note,” said Delucia. “Watertown was a strong team that we had trouble with in the regular season. We knew we didn’t have our best games when we played them earlier, so we were happy to get another chance. Everyone on the team contributed and it was a great team win. The support we received from the community was incredible and it was great knowing that the town was behind us. This is something that we will remember for the rest of our lives.”
W-P (18-6-1) had a couple of quick chances on Dwyer in the first five minutes, but the keeper stood tall and turned them aside. With 10:12 to play in the opening frame, Sandella struck first for Guilford by converting a shot between the face off circles following a feed from Ring.
Leading 1-0 heading into the second period, Guilford saw its lead disappear. First, Troy Harwell knotted things up for W-P on a goal with 8:32 remaining. Eli Rosen then gave W-P a 2-1 edge on a power play goal with 2:20 left before intermission. W-P took its 2-1 edge into the third period after outshooting the Indians 12-5 in the second.
However, the Indians responded early in the third when Sandella tied it by notching his second score of the day on a power play goal from freshman Jack Kane and Delucia with 11:44 left in the game. Just 37 seconds later, Sandella completed his hat trick by scoring off a Ring assist after hovering and hustling around the net to give the lead back to Guilford at 3-2. Ryan Dunfee scored for W-P to even things up at 3-3 with 5:23 to play, but the game didn’t stay tied for long, as Delucia scored on assists from Ring and Sandella to put the Indians in the lead for good with 3:10 remaining. After W-P pulled its goalie for an extra attacker, Ring secured the state crown for the Indians by scoring on the empty net with 1:25 on the clock.
“It’s really a magical time for the kids for them to achieve something they’ve talked about since the beginning of the year. We had some obstacles versus tough teams, particularly Watertown earlier this year, so it was a nice accomplishment to win here,” said Head Coach Ralph Russo. “It is special for our senior captains as each of them contributed tremendously here. Kyle was solid in goal and made big saves in the second. Ricky has a hat trick in his final high school game and another senior in Austin Booth really pushed it and put his heart out there.”
Coach Russo also discussed some of the factors that helped Guilford jell in the third period and explode for four goals in the frame.
“We moved the puck better overall in the third. We were able to get momentum back and more quickly. [Junior defenseman Tom Cattaneo] was out with a broken wrist from our quarterfinal game and he stood up in the locker room before the third and said, ‘We win this game as a team.’ It was the perfect thing to say at the right time,” Russo said.”Guys like Kyle and Ricky also spoke up in that intermission. We were more aggressive with getting to the puck in the third. We were playing around their net and go more scoring chances. It was really great to see some nice passing on the game-winning goal with Jack to Ricky and then to John. Jack also got us a huge insurance goal at the time on the empty net.”
It’s no secret that defense often win championships and so Coach Russo was quick to praise his team’s ability to stop Watertown-Pomperaug’s offensive swarms.
“Cam Bagnall brought a lot of energy, Jack Kane moved the puck well, and James Petritz had some nice ice time in the big spotlight filling in for Cattaneo. Our defense played strong as a whole,” Russo said. “We had to stop the bleeding after the second. They frustrated us and kept us from getting shots. Being down and coming back is a testament to our kids’ will to win the game.”
This winter marked the Indians’ 35th year as a varsity program and they finished it having set the program record for wins in a season with 21. Coach Russo said that his team has been all-in since the minute last season ended, and the final result was a campaign that saw them reign atop both their conference and the state.
“We took our lumps against teams like East Haven and Watertown, but it’s great to see the kids find a way. It’s great to see their hard work payoff with the ultimate win here,” Coach Russo said. “They did the work in the offseason with training. That, along with all the little things they did away from practice to get ready for the year, all came together. The camaraderie also helped pull them through. What will be memorable for me is how athletic and resilient they were. This state title is a great win for the program, the high school, and the town.”
From the Sidelines
Previously in the Division II semifinals against No. 9 South Windsor, Guilford skated to a 3-2 win at Ingalls Rink on March 13. John Delucia gave the Indians a 1-0 lead and then South Windsor tied in the second. Ricky Sandella scored the winning goal on a rebound 3:31 into the third before Delucia made it 3-1. The Bobcats cut it to 3-2 with 2:03 remaining, but the Indians held off the equalizer to punch their ticket to the final. Kyle Dwyer made 16 saves in net.
In the first two rounds of the Division II State Tournament, Guilford defeated No. 13 Trumbull 6-2 for the opener and then beat No. 5 Farmington Valley 9-6 in the quarterfinals.
The Indians finished 15-5 on the regular season and then claimed their first conference title with a 3-2 overtime victory against East Haven in the SCC/SWC Division II Tournament final.
Guilford’s prior state final appearances came in 2011 (Division II), 2010 (Division III), and 1994 (Division II). The Indians lost 3-1 to Cheshire in 2011, defeated Brookfield-Bethel-Danbury 7-3 in 2010, and beat East Windsor-Ellington-Somers 8-1 in 1994.
Guilford's complete Division II state champion roster features senior captains Ricky Sandella and Kyle Dwyer; fellow seniors Austin Booth and Nick DiRaffaele; juniors Tom Cattaneo, Lucas Napolitano, Luke Faulkner-Filosa, and Joey Neleber; sophomores James Petritz, Jack Ring, John Delucia, Jake Watrous, Mike Letourneau, Greg Litvyn, Cam Bagnall, Xander Mason-Mann, and Liam Murphy; and freshmen Kieran Dall, Jack Kane, Jack Dacey, and EJ Vickerman.