Two years ago, the ice hockey team celebrated the greatest achievement in the program’s history – winning the Division I-A state championship. The title capped off a remarkable season in which the Skippers led the league with a 14-2-2 record.
But as a result of losing most of its top players, many of which graduated, NK went from first to worst the following season. The Skippers scored a league-low 12 goals and allowed a league-high 108 goals, en route to a 2-16 record in Division I.
This year, the hockey team has a new coach at the helm. Bob Finelli has accepted the daunting task of not only bringing the program back to respectability, but to prominence.
“We’re starting from the ground up,” said Finelli. “This program was decimated last year. I didn’t even realize how bad things were.”
Finelli’s plan for turning things around is twofold. In the short-term, the coach has the team working hard in practice to close the gap in the level of knowledge and skills with the other teams in the league.
“I’ve given the players a thick playbook to learn, but I’m trying not to throw too much at them at a time,” said the coach. “They have to learn the terminology of the game and how to play without thinking about it. Everything that happens on the ice should be instantaneous.”
Finelli’s long-term plan is to build a program that hockey players growing up in the town look forward to playing for when they get to high school and take pride in playing for once they’ve joined the program.
“These days, all public schools are losing their most talented players to the private schools or to club hockey teams,” stated Finelli. “I want to put a program in place that will give players no reason to leave North Kingstown High School.”
According to Finelli, the high school already has the pieces in place to rival any of the local private schools.
“First and foremost, the high school offers a great education. The academic and athletic facilities are beautiful, and there’s a knowledgeable staff to help with strength and conditioning, as well as nutrition,” said Finelli. “Once we make the hockey program as competitive as it should be, there will be no reason for someone in North Kingstown to go to a private school to play hockey.”
Perhaps less tangible, but not necessarily less significant, than the other reasons Finelli gave for local players to stay local is hometown pride.
“Hockey players and hockey parents can be fickle at times,” noted Finelli. “There’s been a trend of kids leaving for private schools and clubs if they’re not happy with their role or their playing time. But, what they’re missing is the wonderful feeling of playing for your hometown high school with the kids that you grew up with.”
Finelli played hockey for his hometown school, Cranston High School East, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Afterwards, he continued his hockey career at Johnson & Wales University. Currently, Finelli teaches special education at his former high school.
The Skippers’ first test of the 2011-12 season came on Saturday against Cranston High School West. NK was outscored 5-1 and outshot 50-19.
“Cranston West is a perennial power,” said Finelli. “We’re just not ready to play at that level yet.”
In the third period, the Skippers held their own against the Falcons. In fact, NK netted the only goal of the period on a breakaway by senior Stone Cooney.
“I switched things up from three lines to two solid lines in the third period,” Finelli explained.
Despite the five goals allowed, the most impressive individual performance for NK was turned in by goalie Meridith Rocha. Making her first career start, the junior demonstrated poise and the ability to turn away quality shots with the stick, glove and pads. Rocha was also quick to cover up the puck, limiting second-chance opportunities.
The netminder chose to play on the boys’ hockey team rather than the , which combines players from NK, South Kingstown and Narragansett.
“I felt confident before the season started that she could play with the boys,” recalled Finelli. “It turned out that she outplayed everyone else at that position at tryouts.”
Serving as the tri-captains this year are Mike Biello, James Lomas and Corey Theriault.
“They’re outstanding kids who we’ll be leaning on a lot for leadership,” said Finelli.
The Skippers will receive their next test this weekend. On Friday evening, NK will play powerhouse Bishop Hendricken in Smithfield. On Saturday night, the team will take on Lincoln High in Warwick.
Let the rebuilding begin.