Surprising Eagles play Tri-Town for D-III state hockey title on Saturday

The Eagles' Evan Tower, right, skates past Robert Wehmhoff of Staples during Thursday night's CIAC Division III hocke semifinal at Yale's Ingalls Rink in New Haven. Tower and the Eagles will face rival Tri-Town for the state title on Saturday, also at Ingalls, at 10 a.m. (Tim Martin/The Day)
The Eagles' Evan Tower, right, skates past Robert Wehmhoff of Staples during Thursday night's CIAC Division III hocke semifinal at Yale's Ingalls Rink in New Haven. Tower and the Eagles will face rival Tri-Town for the state title on Saturday, also at Ingalls, at 10 a.m. (Tim Martin/The Day)

A team that won a grand total of 13 games the previous three seasons has 18 this year and will be playing for a state championship on Saturday.

That's right. The Eastern Connecticut Eagles, an eight-school cooperative program whose home base is Connecticut College's Dayton Arena, have become the feel-good story of the high school hockey season.

The fifth-seeded Eagles, fresh off an 8-6 upset of No. 1 Staples, will play No. 3 Tri-Town, a co-op of Ellington, East Granby and Somers, in the CIAC Division III final at 10 a.m. at Yale University's Ingalls Rink in New Haven.

Both teams will be playing for their first state title.

The Eagles, 18-3-3 and a year removed from going 4-17, have gone through a major transformation, winning the Nutmeg Hockey Conference regular-season and tournament championships while beating Tri-Town in two of three meetings, including a 4-3 win in the NHC tourney final earlier this month.

Eagles coach Randy Craig was asked ... and more than once, if he saw this quick turnaround coming after Thursday's wild win over Staples.

"I can believe it now because I saw halfway through the year that this was a possibility," he said. "I knew that we had the talent, but because the talent only gets you some places, it was the leadership of this group that has been phenomenal. They have that will to win that makes the game go.

"I have a senior class that has gone three years of building this culture and this program. They brought these young guys along. These young guys have a ton of talent and we know we can score a lot of goals. We're going to play pressure hockey and try to win it that way."

One of those senior leaders is Kevin Close of Waterford, who scored the tie-breaking goal in the third period against Staples before adding an empty netter.

"It's unbelievable that we turned a team that was one of the worst historically into a state contender," Close said. "The talent on this team is completely different from last year. We've got two major new point producers, Kyle (Jacobson) and Evan (Tower), and Will (Cannella), he's been great.

"With those kind of kids that can score, it makes a huge difference. Last year we didn't have that and tried to play defensively and kept it low scoring, but this year we can score."

Jacobson (Waterford), Tower (East Lyme) and Cannella (Stonington) are only sophomores, and their emergence has allowed the Eagles to completely reshape their ice style.

The Eagles are averaging nearly five goals per game and have five players, according to MaxPreps.com, with double figures in goals and assists: Jacobson (24 goals, 23 assists, 47 points), Tower (20-24-44), Close (22-17-39), junior Ryan Huta of Waterford (14-20-34) and Cannella (16-11-27).

"My personal style is I like to play the close game — a 2-1, 3-1 type of game," Craig said. "But I don't get to choose the players, so I adapt rather than have them adapt like a college or pro team where you can recruit or draft the players to suit your style.

"I figured out early on that we were going to be a run-and-gun team. We have speed. We have guys with skill. There was no question that we were going to change our ways this year and play with speed, and that's what we've done every week."

They also have a reliable goalie in sophomore Rylin Fowler (Wheeler), who has allowed only 2.96 goals per game while registering 470 saves.

As for Tri-Town (15-8-1), expect no surprises in the fourth meeting of the season.

"I don't think anyone's going to bring anything new to the table," Craig said. "We're going to battle for 45 minutes, and one team's going to come out with probably a one-goal win, maybe a two-goal win."

n.griffen@theday.com

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