Hockey Team Romps to State Championship

By JOSHUA SABATINI

By the time the boys' varsity hockey team returned home from Boston's Fleet Center on the 7:45 p.m. ferry Sunday - fittingly, the M/V Martha's Vineyard - the word had spread: They were the Division II state champions.

Five fire trucks, one ambulance and six police cars lined the side of the Tisbury ferry terminal slip, flashed the red, blue and white lights, and unleashed a heroic strain of high-pitched sirens. Cars coming off the boat honked horns as passengers leaned out the windows, many waving purple flags and everyone shouting.

The crowd disembarking from the boat shouted as well, smiles on all their faces. One high school girl, sporting a purple "M" painted on one cheek and a purple "V" on the other - faded after the long celebratory evening, but still noticeable - briskly walked to join the crowd of more than 150 who swarmed the passenger ramp, waiting for the 22 champs and their coach, the last ones to step off the boat.

And then they marched from the ferry into the night through the wide-open doors, with two players holding the trophy in front, and first-year head coach Matt Mincone behind.

The Islanders erupted with applause and cheers that rivaled the sirens in volume. The crowd parted to create a passage for the team's victorious walk onto Island ground; as they came through, mothers, fathers and fans patted the athletes on the back, hugged them, spoke words of praise.

Six hours earlier, the fate of the 2002 Vineyard team had not yet been determined. But in a conversation with the Gazette Saturday evening, Mr. Mincone acted the seer and said, "When we bring home the trophy. . ."

His confidence and optimism spread to each one of his players as they kept St. Mary's of Lynn at bay, winning 6-2.

Mr. Mincone knew going into the game his team had at least one advantage - its seniors and juniors were sophmores and freshmen when the Vineyard last visited the FleetCenter, to compete for the 2000 state championship. None of the opposing St. Mary's players had similar experience.

"When the Fleet Center was in sight," Mr. Mincone said, "the players on the bus went nuts. ‘We're back!'

"I told them before the game to do what we have been doing and believe in themselves," he said.

Play was even in the game's opening minutes, back and forth and free of penalties. Chances to score came and went on both sides. Junior goalie Jeff Smadbeck - nicknamed "the Wall" by the coach for his performance throughout the tournament - made three saves, presaging a repeat of his 35-save performance in a semifinal contest the week before. The netminder would go on to record an additional 18 saves before the game's end.

Then Vineyard sophomore Elias Pepper, having just come onto the ice, found himself skating into the Spartans' zone in an advantageous position. Vineyarder Dan Merry's attempt to thread between two defenders was foiled, but the puck bounced to Pepper and he

sent a wrist shot sailing into the left side of the net for the first goal of the

game, 4:01 in.

For the remaining minutes of the first period, both teams ran solid offensive plays to no avail. The Vineyard picked up two penalties, but fought off each power play, as did St. Mary's on each of three penalties.

Into the second period, Mr. Mincone, wearing his trademark black "scully" cap, appeared his usual calm and pensive self. He paced a few steps behind his players on the bench and kept his arms crossed while watching the ice intently, silently.

Halfway through the second period, junior Ben Gunn skated down the side of the rink, outpacing the Spartans, who were caught on a line change. Gunn's shot on goal was saved, but the puck bounced to sophomore Brandon Willet who reacted swiftly and poked the puck into the net, increasing the Vineyard's lead to two.

But St. Mary's hadn't given up just yet - sophomore Justin Santerre skated through defenders on the left side of the net and was able to find an opening for a soft goal on Smadbeck. The Spartans were still alive.

The Vineyard, feeling threatened, responded a minute later. Sophomore Tyler Pachico led the rush into the Spartans' zone, passing the puck to Pepper, who skated around the back of the net and set up Gunn, who fired the puck into the net.

The score would not remain 3-1 for long. St. Mary's Santerre eluded two Island defenders a mere 13 seconds later for his second score.

"Now we have a game on our hands," said a St. Mary's fan under his breath. But the words were ill-fated. The Spartans would not score again.

In the locker room before the third and final period, Coach Mincone told his team, "We've written a great sentence all year long.

"This is a comma," he said. "Now let's go out and end it with an exclamation point!" The team went wild.

"All the bumps and bruises, all the petty arguments through the season - the gelling of our team," the coach added. "How can we end the story by not going out there and giving it everything we got?"

The players listened, and then they answered. Up 3-2, the Islanders came out of the break and made their offensive attacks count.

After five fast-paced, hard-hitting minutes, Gunn passed the puck to Kraig Mundt between the circles; Mundt's backhanded shot found a clear path on the right side of the net, thwarting the Spartans' hopes for a comeback.

Gunn dealt another severe blow 49 seconds later. Facing three defensemen in front of the net, he skillfully played the puck - left, right, left, right - across the front of the crease, before snapping the puck past St. Mary's dazzled goalie into the net's right side.

But it wasn't over for Gunn. With less than five minutes remaining in the game, Senior Tim Bettencourt, who played solid defense all game, sent a shot on goal from the blue line. The puck bounced off the goalie and Gunn found the rebound, capping a stellar performance with the final goal of the game. Gunn had a hand in each of the Vineyarders' six goals, notching a hat trick and three assists.

When the horn blew, the Vineyard bench cleared, the players dropping sticks and gloves en route to pile on the reliable goalie Smadbeck. When they rose, their helmets came off and there were hugs all around.

"I told them if they played as a team good things would happen," said Mr. Mincone. "Many doubted what this team could do because there were so many bumps. The season makes a perfect story.

"It couldn't have gone any better."