Matthew Sprague: Big loss in state hockey final shows there's more to be done in Berkshires
Outside the MassMutual Center locker room Thursday night, Wahconah hockey captain Patrick Jamross tried to stay upbeat.
He wanted to look ahead to the future of his sport locally. After suffering a 12-0 loss in the Division III-A state championship game, looking back was too painful.
"Maybe we get more younger kids interested and change the outlook on Berkshire County hockey," Jamross said.
Wahconah's loss, at the hands of a supremely talented North Middlesex team, should only be seen as a gauge of the talent of the Western Mass. champion Warriors against Central Massachusetts' best. It was a bad night, for sure, but North Middlesex being 12-0 good was more likely than Wahconah being 12-0 bad.
The game, though, should serve as a wake-up call to all involved in youth and high school hockey here. It's time to find the answers and make the sport a power in the Berkshires again.
In the most technical terms, the Division III-A state title game was over just 19 seconds after the opening face-off in Springfield. North Middlesex scored its first of a dozen goals soon after that opening draw, and its defense allowed just 14 Warrior shots all night.
Wahconah, though, was used to weathering storms like the one the Patriots threw at them Thursday. Four goals in the first 4:10? No big deal. Chicopee scored four times in the last three minutes of the second period, and the Warriors still came back to win the Western Mass. title.
But this wasn't Chicopee. This wasn't a Western Mass. championship. This was the state's biggest stage, against a team that clearly had the athletic advantage on its Berkshire County foe.
The Patriots were faster. Wahconah coach Don Disbrow admitted that. They featured a stifling defense and a relentless, quick-strike offense. Jamross saw that firsthand.
"We had trouble keeping it in their zone for more than 5 seconds," he said. "Every time they got it past the red line, they dumped it in and just pressured us hard."
There are some locally who feel North Middlesex shouldn't have been in this division. There's nowhere else to go, though, but up or east. Division III-A just has Western Mass. and Central Mass. teams.
The real issue comes down to numbers and competition. Wahconah is a great program, and has been a great program for a number of years. Disbrow, his coaching staff and players deserve a lot of credit for making the Warriors an annual Berkshire County power, and now the school's first sectional hockey champion.
The fact that it was Berkshire County's first Western Mass. crown since 1992, however, is a sobering one. It took a five-school co-op -- with Drury, Hoosac Valley, McCann Tech and Mount Greylock players wearing blue, this was as much North County's team as it was Wahconah's -- to bring a sectional title back to the Berkshires. The other county schools that still have hockey, Mount Everett and Taconic, are both co-op programs.
Some will say it's the fault of the youth programs. It's not for a lack of trying -- they're all certainly putting together teams and doing their part. Be it the Bruins, the Black Bears or the Rattlers, there are opportunities for kids to take the ice throughout the county. The Boys & Girls Club of Pittsfield is packed yearly for the Kittredge Tournament. Officials, parents and supporters are passionate about their sport, and they won't stop until numbers are up and the sport is strong again.
Others will say it's just an expensive sport. OK, valid. There's no way around that, and it's likely going to take strong, hard-working booster clubs and generous donors to make hockey a little more affordable for interested kids.
Maybe it's just dwindling population that's hurting hockey in the Berkshires and making it tougher for teams to simply exist before thriving. Numbers have generally trended downward in the last 50 years county-wide, and that could certainly mean fewer players. Wahconah reached the sectional semifinal round last year with a team that was hurting for numbers, and not just because of injuries. St. Joseph couldn't justify hosting a team after last season, and folded, sending the Greylock and McCann players in its program to Wahconah's co-op.
If you look back 30 years, you'll see a Hennessy League with plenty of schools in two divisions. Now you won't even see a Hennessy League. Three programs does not a league make.
That means a lot of games for the Berkshires' teams against one another, and a few games against Fay-Wright Division and Berry Division teams in the Pioneer Valley. As we saw Thursday, that competition may not adequately prepare the best western teams for what Central and Eastern Mass. put on the ice. It's tough, though, for athletic directors to justify longer road trips for better tests in an already-expensive, shrinking sport in this age of co-op programs and smaller school budgets.
Maybe Wahconah's sectional championship, though, marks the end of an ebb tide in a cyclical landscape. Perhaps the Berkshires had to take one more lump before delivering them.
Perhaps this was just the push that hockey needed around here to show what more needs to be done to restore glory to a proud sport.
"In my view, this gives the next generation something to shoot for," Wahconah co-captain Lance McColgan said. "They have a chance to make it back here and do what we couldn't do tonight. I'll be looking forward to watching them do it."
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