CIAC State Tournament Up Next
A potent offense, tenacious defense and stellar goaltending propelled the Joel Barlow/Weston/Abbott Tech boys’ hockey team to its first ever SWC/SCC championship on Friday night. JBWA defeated Brookfield/Bethel/Danbury 3-1 in front of an enthusiastic crowd of supporters at Bennett Rink in West Haven to bring their record to 18-4 on the season heading into the CIAC state tournament this week.
It’s been 12 years since Barlow or any boys hockey team from the co-op finished at the top of the SWC, but JBWA’s head coach Bob Stearns knew this year’s team had what it takes to be champions.
“Attitude is everything,” said Stearns. In his eight years coaching the team, Stearns said he’s been “blessed” with great goaltending, talented scorers, skilled defensemen, and excellent leadership among his players. But this year has been extra special. In addition to adding elite playmaker Niko Tournas, this season’s balanced roster made up of players from Barlow, Weston High School, and Abbott Tech, has allowed everyone to play an important role on a team that plays good, clean, competitive hockey, Stearns said.
Barlow junior Spencer Thomas is one of the team’s point leaders who has racked up the most assists, but he is also known for taking a leadership role in “amping up” his teammates before games and even during practices. “I feel like a role model for the team and for my younger brother Connor who is also on the team,” Thomas said during a recent practice at the Danbury arena. “There is a great blend of athletes that help each other achieve their goals.”
Spencer’s younger brother Connor, a Barlow freshman and JBWA’s starting goaltender, loves being on the same team as his older brother. One would think the pressure would weigh heavily on Connor as a starting rookie goalie. “I feel no pressure, just excited,” Thomas said.
Sophomore sensation Tournas said the co-op makeup of the team has made for a very enjoyable and fun season. Blending three teams together has allowed players to have a more rewarding and successful experience because each school brings a different asset and strength to the team.
“We got to meet and play with new kids that I would have never gotten to play with before,” Tournas said. Tournas, who has scored over 50 goals this season and was recently named the SCC/SWC Division 3 Player of the Year, had been described by opposing coaches and regional media outlets as a “game changer” and a “player to watch” heading into the 2021-2022 season. He has not disappointed.
Tournas added another nifty goal and an assist in Friday’s 3-1 victory, and senior co-captain Stephen Theall scored the game winner while collecting two assists. Spencer Thomas notched a goal and an assist to support his brother Connor, who stopped 17 of 18 shots to seal the win and the conference crown. Senior Nick Randall also assisted on an insurance goal from Spencer Thomas late in the third period.
JBWA’s season-long winning formula was evident on Friday night in the form of consistently strong shifts from several players, including forwards Kai Smith and Tommy Kane, and a strong defensive effort led by senior co-captain Duncan Craine and fellow defensemen Emmet Arees and Dylan Staunton, which limited BBD to just one goal thanks to excellent goaltending from Thomas.
The team’s playoff run has also generated a lot of excitement among students at their respective schools, who turned out in high numbers to support the team. “Anything can happen in the state tournament,” said Barlow senior Ben Castonguay, who joined his fellow students in the stands on Friday night. “But no matter how far they go from here, it has already been a successful championship season.”
Castonguay was lucky enough to get a seat on the bus that took fans to the game from Barlow, but many students and families also made the drive up to New Haven. The JBWA coaches acknowledged the fans after game and expressed their appreciation to students and families for making the trip.
As the team turns its focus to the state tournament, JBWA players continue to make Stearns and each other proud. The players and coaches had been waiting for the opportunity to prove they are the best in the SWC/SCC conference and are now among the favorites to make it to the CIAC finals. Given an impressive 18-4 record that includes numerous shutouts and over 100 goals, there is no reason to doubt that this final team goal is within reach.
“We are here to play hockey, but winning is also fun,” Coach Stearns said.
The fun will hopefully continue for JBWA hockey on Monday night when the team faces off against Shepaug/Litchfield/Thomason/Nonnewaug (SLTN) in the opening round of the CIAC state tournament at 8 p.m. at the Danbury Ice Arena. JBWA outscored SLTN 16-2 in their two regular season meetings, including a 9-0 shutout on Jan 11.
Link to CIAC Ice Hockey Tournament bracket: http://content.ciacsports.com/brackets/ihoc2022III.html
Photo at top courtesy of JBWA Instagram.