The Spartans are the 2023 Boys' Ice Hockey Tournament Piatelli/Simmons (Small) Bracket Champions
by John Bishop
Goffstown, N.H. — "Never a doubt!" Yeah, right.
But, postgame, the coach and his student-athletes said the same thing outside the victorious Lawrence Academy locker room. There was never a moment where the Spartans boys' varsity ice hockey team thought they were out of it.
For the NEPSAC Piatelli/Simmons (Small School) Bracket Champions, belief and reality combined following an improbable 4-3 overtime victory over the Frederick Gunn School (FGS) in Saint Anselm's Sullivan rink near Manchester, New Hampshire.
"It was definitely an emotional experience," said senior goalie Vincent Lamberti (Palos Verdes, Calif.), taking a moment to think back over the wild game and his COVID-interrupted LA career. "Coming here, being here for three years — some tough seasons — yeah, just an emotional experience.
"I'm happy about it," he said, grinning ear-to-ear.
But happiness wasn't an emotion that most LA fans were experiencing for much of the afternoon.
Strong play by FGS kept the game in doubt, particularly for the rowdy LA fandom who packed the D II college rink.
However, the Spartans opened the scoring as Marek Thompson '23 (Fort Collins, Colo.) fed Clarence Beltz '23 (Missoula, Mo.) to put LA up 1-0 while skating 4-on-4 at 5:03 of the second period.
Gunn School quickly countered, knotting the game at 1-1 going into the third period, a stanza that proved maddening for anyone wearing "navy blue, red, and white."
"At the beginning of February, the guys started to believe in each other and believe in themselves," said Head Coach Robbie Barker '00. "I thought we got a good jump on 'Gunnery' today, and things went awry.
"But you know, the guys played with poise, and it came down to the last minute there in regulation, and because of... what they've gone through throughout the year, it was not a position that we haven't been in before.
"They stayed strong and believed in each other," added Barker. "And yeah, [that victory is] what happens when you do."
Meanwhile, FGS made the road to victory incredibly treacherous for LA, whose NEPSAC championship hopes teetered precariously throughout the period and nearly toppled over. But the scrappy Spartans would not quit, even after Gunn dented the LA crossbar, almost making the game 4-1.
Seconds later, and working from his knees, Owen Leahy '24 (Warwick, R.I.), with some help from Josh Erickson '23 (Bradenton, Fla.) and Brendan Hirsch '24 (Arlington, Mass.), muscled the puck past the prone Gunn goalie to bring the deficit down to one with just over eight minutes remaining in regulation.
The game stayed that way until LA, shorthanded but with the goalie pulled, pulled off a minor miracle.
Coach Barker called a timeout with 1:01 remaining and with an LA player in the box. Lawrence Academy then controlled the puck off a faceoff in the Spartan zone, and Lamberti skated to the bench. After controlling the puck in the Gunn zone, LA nearly put the puck into their own yawning net but recovered. Thompson started a breakout, then picked up by Shawn White Leary '24 (Dorchester, Mass.), whose deflected shot fluttered to a waiting Erickson. He tied the game with just 22.1 seconds to spare.
The period ended tied 3-3, and the teams went to the locker rooms.
After long minutes of back-and-forth play and taking advantage of a 3-on-2 breakaway, Leahy finally snuck the puck between the left arm and the body of the Gunn goalie.
Pandemonium ensued, both on and off the ice, as the improbable playoff run for the Spartans came to a dramatic and satisfying end.
"Through the course of practicing and buying into a system and sticking to a game plan, I told them that we can skate with anybody," said Coach Barker of his team's poise and discipline down the stretch. "If you guys just stick to that game plan, we'll have plenty of opportunities to pull off some great things."
And they did.
"Never a doubt," indeed.