Published February 27. 2014 4:00AM Updated February 27. 2014 1:55PM
All winter long, the Branford-East Haven-North Branford girls’ ice hockey team proved how athletes from different towns can unify and work toward achieving a common goal. In this case, the goal was to win the Southern Connecticut Conference Division II title. Following a regular season that saw the squad go undefeated against league competition, the Hornets reinforced why they rule SCC DII with a dominating performance in the championship game.
Branford-East Haven-North Branford notched a 4-0 shutout of Notre Dame-Fairfield/Milford to win the inaugural SCC Division II Tournament at Bennett Rink in West Haven on Feb. 26. The Hornets—who had survived an 8-7 overtime victory against Hand in the semis—needed no drama to take this one as they controlled the contest from the opening faceoff through the final whistle. Coach Lauren Wiggins’s squad put 48 shots on net while allowing only 10, each of which were stopped by goalie Whitney Morris, a Branford senior who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“Our program has come such a long way and this victory is a milestone,” Coach Wiggins said. “It’s so exciting. The girls must feel so good right now and I’m so happy for them to end this season on the highest note. It doesn’t get any better.”
A pair of East Haven students accounted for all four goals in freshman center Tina Paolillo and junior captain center Lexi Harney, who each put home a pair. Paolillo scored the game’s initial goal with 3:23 left in the first period and then netted a shorthanded tally 4:49 into the second and to give the Hornets a 2-0 command entering the final frame. In the third, Harney—who had scored the OT winner versus Hand—tallied two goals in an 11-second span to ice the victory and put a bow on the best season in program history.
“It’s amazing. We just joined with the girls from North Branford this year and to come this far so fast is huge,” said Paolillo. “This shows that even if you don’t do well one year, that you can pick yourself up and take the path you want the next year. We went down our road and it took us here. And we did it as a team.”
Indeed they did for, even though the Hornets featured people from three different towns, they still played like one cohesive unit with Harney and fellow captains Cassidy Murphy and Marissa Guglielmi—both Branford students—helping develop strong chemistry from the get-go.
“We were like one big family,” said sophomore defenseman and East Haven resident Julia Schatz. “I felt good about this team right from our first practice.”
Although the Hornets cruised to the win, the Lancers actually had the game’s first legit scoring opportunity two minutes in when Jessica LeMere raced toward the net, where Morris calmly turned aside her offering. The Hornets then started using their considerable speed advantage to put a series of shots on opposing goalie Brooke Bonetti, who played a great game by making 44 saves. But with just over three minutes left in the first period, Bonetti couldn’t stop Paolillo, who stole the puck from a Lancer and used a nifty move to beat the keeper for a 1-0 lead after one.
About three-and-a-half minutes into the second, the Lancers had a chance on the power play, yet Paolillo turned the tables by burying a shorthanded breakaway goal for a 2-0 advantage. Paolillo led the Hornets in scoring this season with 25 goals and 12 assists. Bonetti made several more quality saves through the rest of the second and the Lancers were still within striking distance heading to the third.
Early in the closing stanza, the Lancers had another power play that yielded no goals. Then in the middle of the period, each team had a few players sent to the penalty box. This resulted in a 4-on-3 advantage for the Hornets, who took advantage as Harney blasted a slap shot past Bonetti to make it 3-0 with 4:24 remaining. Now skating 4-a-side, Harney scored another just 11 seconds later to seal the victory at 4-0. She was the squad’s second-leading scorer this year, finishing with 18 lamplighters.
After Harney’s quick two, the only thing left to decide was whether Morris would get the shutout in net. Even though the Lancers had the puck in the Hornets’ zone on the power play in the final minute, they couldn’t get one in and the veteran keeper had her fourth whitewash of the campaign.
“Our defense was amazing. They blocked half of the shots in front of me,” Morris said. “We just played awesome all year and played our best game of the season today. To go from having one win last year to winning the championship this year is unbelievable.”
When all was said and done, the Hornets finished 8-9-1 and went 7-0-1 against SCC DII foes, including the tournament. Still, the team received quite a scare against Hand in the semis in an 8-7 win at DiLungo Rink in East Haven on Feb. 24. The Hornets trailed by two goals in the third period before Sydney Hogan’s goal from Paolillo and Erin Sheehan’s tying score from Guglielmi. The Hornets then took a 7-6 lead to the waning stages, although Hand scored on the power play to send the game to overtime. In the extra session, Hogan found Harney for the game-winner at the 13:05 mark to conclude a thrilling victory. Paolillo had two goals with two assists, Hogan and Sheehan each scored two, Rachel Siciliano had a goal, and Guglielmi and Harney both dished out an assist to help the team reach the title game.
The Hornets’ championship roster is comprised of Branford students Morris, senior forward Murphy, senior forward Jamie Ardito, senior forward Shelby Antonino, junior defenseman Guglielmi, junior wing Sam DeVito, junior forward Jessica Giamattei, sophomore defenseman Anna Pascale, and freshman forward Shea Kennedy; along with East Haven residents Paolillo, Harney, and Schatz, plus junior defenseman Tiffany Brady and freshman wing Alanna Hamilton; as well as North Branford students in senior defender Alyssa Doran, junior wing Sheehan, junior wing Siciliano, junior center Kaitlyn White, and freshman wing Hogan. Coach Wiggins was assisted by Brian Haesche and Dave Salerno.