Eagles skate to NHC tournament title

New London — More than one person used the word “suffered” after this game, testimony to the idea that winning is most appreciated after miserable bouts with losing.

And that’s what the Eastern Connecticut Eagles, the region’s eight-school hockey cooperative, couldn’t shake. Losing. The seniors on the 2018 team — suddenly the new league champs — won four, five and four games in their first three years here.

But then came Thursday night, the resurgent Eagles in the Nutmeg Hockey Conference tournament championship game. They held off Tri-Town in the final five minutes and earned a 4-3 win, the first hockey title for the program in the first year it ever even made the playoffs.

“What our seniors have gone through,” coach Randy Craig said. “Small numbers, lots of losing. They’ve suffered. They deserve this so much.”

And so now this program gets to hang a banner — eight banners, actually — inside the schools representing the cooperative: Fitch, East Lyme, Ledyard, Waterford, Wheeler, Stonington, Griswold and Hale-Ray.

Ryan Huta of Waterford snapped a 2-2 tie a minute into the third period to give the Eagles (15-3-3) the lead they’d never relinquish. Evan Tower (East Lyme) made it 4-2, capitalizing on a 5-on-3. The defense and goalie Rylin Fowler (Wheeler) did the rest.

“My captains Kevin Close (Waterford), Zach Bradley (East Lyme) and Quenten Dean (East Lyme) have meant so much,” Craig said, “They’ve kept this together.”

It is not easy to achieve the requisite chemistry and camaraderie with players from eight different schools. Craig said it helps that many of them played youth hockey together.

“Bus rides and after practice in the locker room is important social time,” he said. “But the biggest difference for us this year is confidence. We know we can score. We go into the locker room down a goal and it’s no big deal. In past years, if we didn’t win 2-1 or 3-1, we didn’t win. Now we know we can win 6-5 or 7-6 if we have to. We might give up a few, but we’re going to run and gun.”

Riley Jordan (Fitch) and Kyle Jacobson (Waterford) also scored for the Eagles, who will open state tournament play next week.

“This was a very special night,” Craig said. “The kids can enjoy this until 3 o’clock (Friday) when we practice. Then it’s back to business. I’m a Penn State guy and I like what (football coach) James Franklin says. ‘Let’s try to go 1-0 today.’” That’s really what we’re trying to do.”



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