Photography by Chris Tran
The #6 seeded Nantucket boys hockey team has overcome many challenges this season, but on Saturday they were unable to beat the #2 seeded and defending state champion Sandwich Blue Knights at the Gallo Arena in the Div. 4 state semifinal, losing 3-0.
"The season was unreal," junior goalie Griffin Starr said. "No one expected us to make the final four, win the league, hit a 9 game win streak, and play the entire season playing 9 skaters. Everyone on the team deserves tons and tons of credit for what we did. Battling through injuries, sickness, short bench, and anything else that could put us down hard. No one quit, gave up, or has had any second guesses that this was one of the best seasons the program has ever seen. And that is the most important part."
The Whalers came out sharp and outshot the Blue Knights 9-7 in the first period. But Sandwich got a power play opportunity midway through the first following a holding call against Nantucket, giving them an opportunity to strike first in the game.
Colin McIver has had a sensational career for the Blue Knights and scored a goal on the man advantage to give his team a 1-0 lead with 7:31 remaining in the opening frame. It was the 100th point of the senior center’s career.
The Whalers continued to get chances, but senior captain Mitchell Norkevicius was up to the task and stood tall in net for Sandwich. The Blue Knight’s first line of McIver and junior wingers Jack Connolly and Chris Cardillo got their fair share of opportunities outside of McIver’s first tally, but Starr also stood tall in net for Nantucket with several good saves including a nice blocker stop on a cross ice one timer just over five minutes into the game.
The second period was all Nantucket. Their forecheck and physicality caused issues for Sandwich and they had most of the offensive zone time.
But the Blue Knights still got their chances when their elite first line was on the ice. After going the first 12 minutes of the period with very few shots, the Blue Knights got several high quality opportunities in the final three minutes. Their late period push eventually led to a sequence where there was a scramble in Starr’s crease for a loose puck that McIver eventually found and buried for his second goal of the game to give the Blue Knights a 2-0 lead with 1:03 to go in the second period.
Starr's glove came off on the play, which by rule should have led to an immediate stoppage of the game. However the Blue Knights took advantage of the gift by finding the loose puck and burying it.
The Whalers found themselves in a tough spot less than four minutes into the final period. They were forced to go on the penalty kill with 11:34 remaining in the game. It was a must-kill shorthanded situation for Nantucket to avoid falling into a 3-0 hole, and they did just that with a strong PK.
But then it was McIver again, just a little over two minutes after the power play ended, securing the hat trick in his final game ever at the Gallo Arena to give his team a 3-0 lead.
The Whalers tried to come back but the Blue Knights defense and goaltending was able to close the game out. It was the end of an historic season for a Nantucket team that went into the year with nine of their 17 players as freshman skaters while losing 10 seniors from last year’s team that made it all the way to the state quarterfinal.
Ryan Davis emerged as a star player and leader for the Whalers. He finished the season with team-high in points (35) points and goals (20). He is poised for a monster senior season.
"This season was truly different," Davis said. "This summer when we got the news that (head coach Jack Moran) was coaching we all had an idea of what we were getting into. Yet we still knew it would be a fun time doing what we love.
Davis reflected on the first three games of the season. The first was at Nauset against the Warriors, one of the top teams in Div. 3. The Whalers lost that game 7-4. The next two were against Sandwich, which ended with a 2-1 loss at the Gallo and a 3-1 loss on Nantucket. Davis said looking back on it, playing that level of competition may have been the best thing for himself and the team.
"We got to see what we could be and how good we could get," he said. "Throughout the season we worked for everything we got. Nothing was given to us. Everyday was another grind. No team worked as hard as us and it showed every game when it came down to being tired or not."
Freshman wingers Canton Jenkinson and Jeremy Jenkinson, junior center Colby O’Keefe, and junior winger Braden Knapp will all be returning, along with Davis, to give Nantucket a very strong core to work with up front next season that now has postseason experience and a resume of past production at the varsity level.
The Whaler’s top defenseman Michael Culkins will also be back next season, along with the rest of the defense core including freshman Soren Edwardes and junior Hunter Strojny. Knapp also proved this season that he has the ability to play heavy minutes on the back end if needed.
The Whalers have some freshman skaters who showed upside this season in Andrew Lavin, Ben Freeman, Gordon Raimo, Baer O’Banion, and Ronaldo Del Rosario Gomez. Some will need to add some size but have the skills while other will need to continue working on their abilities but have the size. Each player has shown different skillsets that could help them become key contributors for this team in their sophomore years.
The team will also have Starr back in net. Starr took a major leap forward in his junior season, which was his second season as a starter overall. The Whalers won 13 of their 19 regular season games and 16 of 23 games overall. Starr was named the Cape & Islands Lighthouse Division League MVP as well for his efforts.
"Next year only looks brighter for us," Starr said. "Ben Freeman and Jeremy will be back, which will replace our two leaving seniors decently. There is a kid or two that we could be getting back from a prep school who are both nasty hockey players. The returning seven or eight starters are only going to get better and build chemistry over the offseason."
As for the seniors, the Whalers will lose two valuable pieces from their top six. Senior captain Jack Billings led this group further than any other Whaler captain has ever led a team. He blossomed into a three-zone player who could impact the game in several ways whether it be on the penalty kill blocking shots, the point on the power play managing the man advantage, or during five-on-five play scoring big goals or making plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet but help Nantucket in a significant way.
Senior winger Curren Hatch went into this season having something to prove. This was the first year Hatch was a regular in the lineup and he made the most of it. He gradually improved as the season went along and became more and more noticeable on both the ice and the stat sheet as the season progressed. Hatch scored a pair of tournament goals to help Nantucket get to the state semifinal and this team will need some of their younger players to make similar leaps next season in order to fill the holes being left by both him and Billings. Their leadership and ability to bring this team together rang true through Davis' words about the team chemistry.
"It truly was an incredible season. We grew so close and enjoyed everything we did whether it was poker at my house or the Mogadishu mile at dry land (training)," Davis said. "I can’t describe how much fun I had this season. The coaching was great. They pushed us hard yet still made it fun."
Moran will enter his second season as the head coach of this group and the familiarity he and his staff have with these players now could help this team get off to a quicker start next season.
Given all the returning ingredients, along with the possible addition of one or two prep school hockey players moving to the island, freshman skaters who will have a year to develop and round out their games this spring, summer, and fall, and the youth hockey players who will be eligible to play at the varsity level next year, these varsity players and coaches feel optimistic that next season they can finish the job and bring a state title to the island.
"I think the TD Garden is in the future," Davis said. "I’m looking forward to stepping back onto that ice in a Whaler's jersey already. I know my boys are by my side on that one."
"Next year is the year," Starr said.