Bulldogs capture first-ever state title

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With their fans behind them, the state champs proudly display their trophy. Mike Barucci Photos

In what might have been the biggest moment of their young lives on the biggest of all stages, the 22 members of the Canton High School boys’ hockey team soared to new heights of greatness, beating north champion Newburyport 4-2 Sunday at the Boston Garden to capture the program’s first-ever state title.

Playing in front of hundreds of Canton faithful and inspired by the memory of their fallen teammate, Scott Herr, the Bulldogs looked sharp, focused, and utterly determined to avoid a repeat of last season, when the same Clipper team dashed their championship hopes with the winning goal less than two minutes into overtime.

The irony is that this year’s team, compared to the star-studded 2009 squad, went largely unheralded when the season began. They certainly weren’t expected to make a return trip to the Garden.

But what they had all along, according to head coach Brian Shuman, was an indescribable “it factor” — a rare combination of talent, chemistry, and confidence that, in the end, produced a champion.

As Shuman put it, “they just had a knack for getting it done and performing in the clutch.”

That is not to suggest, however, that Sunday’s game was some sort of cake walk. Shuman said his players were “understandably nervous” in the opening minutes of play, which led to a few early Newburyport chances that were turned away by goaltender Jon Donaruma — arguably the MVP of the entire tournament.

“They threw everything they had at us,” Shuman said. “They came at us hard, and we knew their first two lines were going to be very tough.”

But it was the Bulldogs who struck first, going up 1-0 less than four minutes into the game when freshman Nick O’Connor backhanded his own rebound past the Clipper goalie, assisted by Hockomock League MVP Kevin Rooney.

Newburyport would tie the score a few minutes later, but they had little time to savor it as Canton came right back with a goal by junior Greg Boyd off a “beautiful” pass from senior Kyle Leavitt.

Shuman said it was one of the many key plays made by Boyd, who had “his best game of the season by far” on offense as well as defense.

Up 2-1 going into the second period, the Bulldogs managed to avoid their “Achilles heel” — having been outscored 5-0 in the second frame over their three previous games — and ended up getting several chances to extend the lead before finally breaking through with their all-important third goal on a Mike Denehy put-back in front of the net, assisted by young linemates Matt Malloy and Pat Ward.

“These guys played their hearts out,” Shuman said of his third line. “It’s just amazing the contributions we got this tournament from freshmen and sophomores.”

With less than a minute to go in the period, the Clippers capitalized on an uncharacteristic defensive breakdown to make it a one-goal game, but Canton’s 28-9 advantage in shots painted a very different picture — as did the tone in the locker room heading into the third period, which Shuman said included “a lot of emotions” and “a lot of talk about #5, Scotty Herr.”

And with everything on their side, the Bulldogs came out and played outstanding hockey for just about the whole final period, fueled by Donaruma’s acrobatics in net and captain Matt Buckley’s leadership on defense. Several other defensemen stepped up as well, including seniors Ryan Bogosian and Bobby Hayhurst and junior Mike Oldenberg.

Shuman said Buckley in particular had the “period of the season,” while fellow captains Billy Duggan and Frank Eckler, along with Rooney and Leavitt, led a flawless penalty kill with only minutes remaining to preserve the lead.

The Clippers eventually pulled their goalie, and fittingly it was Rooney — the team’s best offensive weapon all year, a player whose name is synonymous with Canton hockey — who sealed the win with an empty netter as the crowd erupted in cheers.

The celebration that ensued once the final buzzer sounded was spontaneous and deafening, and on the ice, equipment went skyward as players savored the ultimate thrill of victory. A quick ceremony followed, where each player received a medal and their Division 2 MIAA state championship trophy.

Once in the locker room, Shuman thanked his boys for a season of a lifetime and also reminded them that they share the title with last year’s team and with the “great Canton teams of the past,” without whom there “would be no Canton High School hockey tradition.”

Reflecting on the season and his players afterward, Shuman said they were the “definition of team.”

“I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” he said. “This is definitely a tribute to their heart and mental toughness that we were able to win the first title in school history.”

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avatar Posted by on Mar 18 2010. Filed under Citizen Classics, High School, Photo Gallery, Sports.
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