Wins had been few and far between for Houlton-Hodgdon-Southern Aroostook-Katahdin’s cooperative high school hockey team in recent years.
The Blackhawks had won only two games in three years entering this season. They went 1-16 a year ago and finished last in the Class B North Heal Point standings.
But the Blackhawks have turned it around.
They are 8-4, including a rare win over fourth-place Brewer, which is 7-3-1.
“A few people told me it was the first time we have beaten Brewer in 10 years. That was huge,” said fourth-year head coach Tony Marino, whose Blackhawks nipped the Witches 2-1 at the Penobscot Ice Arena in Brewer on Dec. 23.
“It gave us a lot of confidence,” said junior defenseman Drew Marino, Tony’s son.
Presque Isle coach Carl Flynn said the Blackhawks’ turnaround is no fluke.
He said senior center Josh Malone is an exceptional player “and he has a better supporting cast around him this year.
“And they have three outstanding goalies,” added Flynn.
“They have come a long way,” said Brewer coach Lance Ingerson. “They have picked up a couple of key players they didn’t have last season.”
Tony Marino said he isn’t that surprised by his team’s resurgence.
“We’re getting a little older now. We were mostly freshmen and sophomores last year. Now we have a little more size and little more maturity,” said Marino.
“We got off to a good start. We got a couple of wins early and that got the momentum going,” said junior left wing Nick DeLucca. “We decided this needed to be our year [to turn things around]. We all have that mentality.”
The Blackhawks have attracted players from high schools in Houlton, Hodgdon, Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook and Katahdin of Stacyville.
They won their first three games before losing to Hampden Academy 5-4 in overtime. The Broncos are 9-4 and in third place in the standings.
The swift-skating Malone is the Blackhawks’ leading scorer. He was an All-Eastern Maine Class B third-team selection last season.
“He’s very good with the puck. He’s a good skater and a good two-way player,” said Tony Marino.
Malone is joined on the top line by Brandon Dunn and DeLucca, two experienced and productive wingers.
Marino also has a solid second line featuring junior A.J. Henderson at center flanked by sophomore Alex Wilde and junior Garrett Perkins.
DeLucca and Henderson are the other leading point-getters.
The Blackhawks have averaged nearly four goals per game (3.7).
They have also been getting the job done defensively, allowing two goals or less seven times.
“We have a new [assistant] coach this year, Neal Campbell, and he has really helped us out on the defensive end,” said junior defenseman Abe Lorom.
Lorom, an All-EM Class B pick a year ago, headlines the blue-line corps.
“He’s a great skater. He’s real good defensively,” said coach Marino.
Juniors Zachary Fitzpatrick and Drew Marino and freshman Gavin Vining have been reliable and efficient defensemen. Marino was primarily a forward last season. Senior Elizabeth Ward provides depth on defense.
Senior Nate Lilley, who was selected to the Eastern Maine Class B All-Rookie team, and sophomore Ian Neureuther have shared the goaltending.
Last season was Lilley’s first, since he attends Southern Aroostook which, along with Katahdin of Stacyville, didn’t join the Houlton-Hodgdon cooperative team until last season.
There are no players from Katahdin this season.
“Both goalies have been doing a real good job. Both have improved,” said Marino.
Lilley played the majority of the minutes a year ago because Neureuther was sidelined by an injury.
Neureuther made 38 saves in the victory over Brewer.
Vining also hails from Southern Aroostook, while Malone and senior forward Jamie Palmer are from Hodgdon. All of the other players are from Houlton.
The Blackhawks coach said one of the biggest areas of improvement has been on the penalty kill and the power play is getting there.
“It’s still a work in progress,” said Marino.
Dunn credited coach Marino for “really stepping it up this year.
“He has been changing the program. He has looked at other teams and been matching lines with them,” said Dunn.
Marino admitted that he has become more comfortable as a coach now that he is in his fourth season and that he has learned a lot.
“I’m a little more experienced. Matching lines is important in high school hockey. And I’ve learned to simplify our systems,” said Marino.
The Blackhawks host title contender Old Town-Orono on Saturday at 1 p.m.