EXETER, NH – Bit by injuries, Covid protocols and general inexperience, the Manchester Central/West co-op high school ice hockey team was as never able to overcome a slow start in a season like no other.
Look beyond wins and losses, however, and you’ll find many subtle successes, said Central/West head coach Eric Fischer.
“You know, the score is what gets the most focus some of the time, but we’ve got some good kids on the team,” he said. “I think we had a full team for maybe four of the games, and it was a challenge for us. Penalties hurt us, inexperience hurt us, but these kids work hard and all things being considered, it was really a decent year. With all the craziness of Covid, there was a lot of positive stuff to build upon.”
Fischer said by the time his players were able to start gaining chemistry, injuries began to mount, including a knock to sophomore standout Owen Kelley, all of which collectively hampered the team’s progress.
Of course, it’s awfully tough to win a game against a good team when you’re down to two forward lines and three total defensemen, two of which are freshman, and all three of your seniors are out due to protocol restrictions.
That’s was Fischer’s reality Wednesday night when his squad fell, 8-0, in the first round of the playoffs to an 11-3 Exeter squad that’s among the favorites to compete for the Division I championship this postseason.
“Exeter was probably going to have that same type of score and game outcome whether my three seniors were here or not,” said Fischer. “They came out ready to play. They were fired up.”
The Blue Hawks scored four goals in the first five minutes of the game and were up by seven five minutes after that. They capped their scoring three minutes into the second period before settling into a more defensive-focused game plan the last 27 minutes of the contest.
With an eye on next season, Fischer said that even blowouts like Wednesday night’s loss are likely to benefit his team down the road.
“These guys have to learn from these situations to keep fighting, keep plugging away,” he said. “There might be a time when these guys end up up 7-0 in a different situation, so the experience that they get is unbelievable, and it was fun to be here.
“I know that’s not what we wanted to say,” he continued. “Obviously, we hoped the result was different, but Exeter’s a great team, and we’re growing, so hopefully we come back next year and are able to put up a better effort.”
First, however, the Little Green Knights must big farewell to seniors Sam Lewis, Tyler Sarette and Keegan Hoag, all of whom set an example of hard work from which the younger players can take and build upon, said Fischer.
“The expectation for us next year is we want to get a couple of these wins. We want to be in the hunt for a playoff spot, legitimately,” he said. “You know, I’ve got a young goaltender (David Hood). He’s a sophomore, and he made hundreds of saves this year, so that’s a positive.”
In addition, Central/West is expected to bring back Owen Kelley and his older brother, Aiden, who will be a senior next season.
“They don’t get tired,” said Fischer of the Kelley brothers. “They have this crazy motor inside them. They’re just driven hockey kids who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, the way I see it. They’ll go through you, over you or around you.”
Similarly, blue-line brothers Matt Blair, a junior captain this year, and Michael, who saw more than 20 minutes game as a freshman, are likely back to lead the team’s defensive effort, alongside freshman Caiden Bryde.
Sophomore Kaleb Page, a natural defenseman, proved versatile as a two-way player after being thrust into a forward position due to injuries, while sophomore Ethan Hartshorn and junior Matt LaForge also showed promise and growth throughout the season.