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Eastern CT Eagles win Div. III championship for first state hockey title

New Haven — As the season progressed, the Eastern Connecticut Eagles started to believe winning the program's first CIAC Division III state title was more possible than improbable.

With that said, the fact that they accomplished the feat on Saturday morning in their first championship game appearance still might take a while to really sink in.

Even after raising the championship plaque following a spirited 7-3 win over Tri-Town at Yale University's Ingalls Rink.

"Unbelievable," senior Kevin Close said. "One of the best experiences that I've ever had. To be able to put this together as a team and make it this far and then finish the deal, it's insane.

"Absolutely insane."

The fifth-seeded Eagles capped off their dream season with a complete team performance. They never trailed, jumping out to a 3-0 first-period lead. They held off every Tri-Town comeback attempt and sophomore goalie Rylin Fowler made several terrific stops among his 26 saves overall.

Five different players scored goals, with Close recording a hat trick and adding an assist. Sophomore Kyle Jacobson and senior Quenten Dean each added a goal and an assist while junior Ryan Huta had two assists.

Close basically sealed the win by scoring two goals, including one-shorthanded, just over three minutes apart in the third period, giving the Eagles a comfortable five-goal edge.

The championship victory capped a remarkable journey for the Eagles, who had won a combined 13 games the previous three seasons. They finished 19-3-3 a year after going 4-17.

"It really is unbelievable," coach Randy Craig said. "I say unbelievable because it's the feeling, but it's not. I believed it a long time ago that we were going to get here."

Craig saw the potential in his team about the third week of the season. A defensive-minded coach, he adjusted to an offensive style to utilize his team's talent and speed. He credited the senior class for building a winning culture.

"This year, we saw something early," Craig said. "And we knew we were going to be underestimated all year because our past hasn't been really successful. ... As it built, 10 games into the season, teams  stopped underestimating us and we started to get some attention."

Eastern already had third-seeded Tri-Town's attention. The teams met three times prior to Saturday, with the Eagles winning two hard-fought games.

They dominated the opening period, showing off their offensive flair while outshooting Tri-Town 14-5.

Stationed in front of the goal, Dean knocked it a pass from Huta for a 1-0 lead three minutes, 53 seconds into the game.

The high-flying Eagles continued to buzz around the offensive zone.

A determined Will Cannella crashed the net to poke home a goal and sophomore Evan Tower's high wrist shot beat goalie Peyton Emrick for a 3-0 edge. The goals came 1:12 apart.

Tri-Town's Michael Shuman converted a power play goal — one of the team's three in the game — with 10 seconds left to cut the gap to a 3-1.

The Knights carried that momentum into the second period and turned up the intensity. That is when Fowler was at his best.

Tri-Town broke out a 2-on-1 rush but an alert Fowler blocked the first shot with his body and scrambled to deflect away the rebound.

"Everybody underestimates him," Craig said.  "He's 5-foot-2 or 5-foot-3 and weighs 107 pounds. He's a small, small goalie. But he has a quick glove and quick legs. ... Nothing rattles him."

A few minutes later, Close beat a Tri-Town defender to a loose puck, made a nifty move around a charging Emrick and slid the puck into the open net for a 4-1 edge.

It was an uplifting goal for the Eagles and a deflating one for the Knights, who held a 16-6 edge in shots during the second period during which Fowler made 15 saves.

Jacobson fired home a high shot for Eastern shortly after Tri-Town's Andrew Gaines' power play goal. The Eagles carried a 5-2 lead into the third period.

Close scored twice to put the game away — once on a breakaway and another solo rush in a short-handed situation.

The program has come a long way from the days of lopsided losses and long bus rides home.

"It's been a grind the past seasons and our record was not great," Close said. "We barely qualified for the state tournament a couple of times and got blown out first round last year. ... Looking back, those were hard seasons. We didn't win many games. The bus rides home were often silent.

"This year, the mood changed entirely. We got five wins to start off the season and we were feeling good. We were like, we can make a run this year. And we did. We made a run."

And the final bus ride home this season?

"It's going to be pretty loud," Close said.


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