John Liquori isn't about to make waves; it's just not part of his make-up.
The lone senior on Springfield Cathedral boys’ hockey team this winter has, and will continue to be, a team player first and foremost. Ever since Liquori's sophomore season, the Panthers’ net has belonged to him and him only. He has been backbone behind this team’s recent success on the ice, leading them to a pair of Super 8 appearances the past two years.
But this year, things are different. For the first time in his varsity career, the netminder has been challenged by a promising freshman. Keith Petruzzelli, a behemoth of a player who stands 6-foot-5 as a freshman, has auditioned well for his coaches, proving he too, can play the position.
Having two top-level goaltenders at your disposal is a luxury for any team – many high school programs are not awarded such a distinction. On the other hand, it can create some turmoil in terms of confidence and trust.
As of now, Liquori remains the Panthers' starting goaltender. But if he is No. 1, then Petruzzelli is undoubtedly 1A.
At the beginning of the season, and with Petruzzelli now in the mix, the pressure was getting to Liquori a bit. By his own admittance, he wasn’t playing with the same tenacity or confidence seen during previous two seasons. Shots he could corral blindfolded were now getting through.
“I wasn’t too happy with the way I was playing at the beginning of the season,” Liquori said. “But as time went on I figured out what I needed to figure out, fought through it and got back to playing my game. Right now, I feel as though I am starting to play the way I know I can play and perform.”
Liquori says he wasn't playing with a clear head soon after Petruzzelli came on board. Prior to his arrival at Cathedral, Petruzzelli was playing for the highly-touted Junior Bruins U-16 program.
“Things got a little confusing at the start because I wasn't sure what my role on this team was going to be now,” said Liquori, a team captain. “But as I've gotten to know Keith, I've learned that he is a really great kid and I love working with him. We have become very good friends and we work really well together. We both support one another 100 percent. That's all that matters. I'm not going to say that I wasn't bothered by it to some degree. It can be frustrating but at the same time I'm a captain for this team so I needed to stay supportive. I have learned that you cannot let your emotions get the best of you. I need to be a leader for this team and support Keith when it is his turn in goal. That is what I am doing.”
Although Liquori chooses to take the high road, deep down you have to think he believes he has earned the right to be the team's everyday starter between the pipes — especially now with the Panthers in the midst of their stretch run in preparation for the postseason later this month. There are times this season when Petruzzelli has gotten the starting nod, including Saturday's 19-save performance, 3-0 shutout win over Hingham.
A week ago, in a game against BC High, Liquori was pulled after two periods despite having not allowed a goal and Cathedral clinging to a 1-0 lead. The Eagles would eventually score a late third period goal to salvage a 1-1 tie.
“We want to try and get both of them in as much as possible,” Panthers head coach Brian Foley said. “If we can split most games then we will try to do that. Right now John is our starter and we’ll try to get Keith in when we can and go from there. John has been a three-year starter here and has played pretty-much every game for us. He has been tremendous. He is playing really well for us right now and I couldn't be more-happy for him.”
Foley understands because of Cathedral's successful track record over the past few years, expectations from this highly-supportive fan base have grown. To them, nothing short of being a perennial Super 8 contender will be accepted.
Yet, with so many top-tier players opting to leave their respective high school programs early to hook on with a junior program, nobody can blame Foley if some of that rational exists.
“Sometimes you need to make those hard decisions for what is best for the team,” Foley said. “The kids need to worry about what they can control in regards to their effort and play on the ice. I think John has done a great job with that. We really have a healthy competition taking place between the two of them. The work-ethic from both during our practice sessions has been very intense.
“Overall, I feel it is a good situation. At first John wasn't sure how things were going to go with Keith coming in. But I think the two of them are comfortable with one another now and both know they will have their opportunities. I think competition brings out the best in people and this has been healthy for each of them. Both are now starting to realize that because the two of them are playing much-better because they battle so hard every day.”
So far this season Liquori has maintained an impressive .914 save percentage. His play between the pipes has been nothing short of exceptional since being named the starter back in 2011. Hands down, he is considered one of the top all-around goaltenders in the state.
“Ever since he joined the varsity program as a sophomore, John has really stepped it up,” said Cathedral junior forward and three-year varsity member Peter Crinella. “He has led us to two Super 8 tournaments which is truly unbelievable, especially for a kid that young. He has kept it going for us the last two years and he is doing it for us again this year. I know we are a top 8 team in the state and with the skill and depth we have in goal, I feel it will only help carry us to the point of winning a title this season.”
To a player, the solitary objective for this team is to win a Super 8 championship.
Two years ago, the Panthers were knocked out of the tournament by Central Catholic. Last year, eventual champion Malden Catholic sent Cathedral, ranked No. 1 by ESPN Boston for most of the season, packing in its first-round series. This year, it’s Liquori’s desire that he will be the one driving the bus toward that championship run.
“I just need to go into every game from here on out thinking that I am going to play the entire game,” Liquori said. “I need to feel like I’m the only goalie on this roster and just go out, do my job, play to the best of my abilities and get a win for my teammates.
“I have talked to Keith and coach Foley and I feel we have gotten things straightened out so now it’s back to business. Coach Foley is playing to win which I totally agree with. We’re not here to make people happy. We’re here to win hockey games.”
Through it all, Petruzzelli, who along with teammate and older brother D.J., has already made a verbal commitment to play for Quinnipiac University once their high school careers are done, says there is no animosity between himself and Liquori. But like Liquori, Petruzzelli is also used to being the starter in goal. Wherever he has played, beginning at the youth league level, Petruzzelli has always been the leading man.
“Coming in as a freshman obviously I knew my role wasn’t going to be the starter here with John being such a great goalie,” said Petruzzelli, who currently holds a save percentage of .931. “He has been a great leader for this team and has taught me how to act as a goalie for this team. No matter who is playing on that particular night, it’s about the team and we will do whatever we can to help this team and each other.”
In the grand scheme of things, the pressure Liquori may be feeling from Petruzzelli is hardly considered a major hardship. The 18 year-old endured a life-changing one back in 2009 when his mother Gina succumbed to cancer. Liquori says not a day goes by when he doesn't think about her. Before each game he says a prayer for her.
“To be honest that is all I think about,” he said. “I know she is with me every game. I think that is what helps get me through it all.”
When Liquori’s time at Cathedral is finished, he plans to play junior hockey for a couple of seasons while furthering his education at a community college. Then the plan is to land a goaltending spot at a four-year institution somewhere.
Yet, in spite of his ups and downs, Liquori says the time he has spent at Cathedral has been gratifying.
“Looking back on things here now I have absolutely no regrets,” he said. “I feel that I have done everything I could have done and what I wanted to do. Right now all I want to do is win a Super 8 title. This team may not have the age but I know we have the talent to do it.”
Come March, perhaps it will be Liquori's time to drive that bus. Only this time with a MIAA Division 1A trophy alongside for the ride.