Wilmington hockey comfortable at the top

It seems that nothing ever changes for the Wilmington hockey program.

The Wildcats recently clinched their fourth consecutive Cape Ann League title and 10th in 16 years. With two games remaining on the regular-season schedule, they are on pace to earn the top seed in the EMass. Division 2 North tournament for the second year in a row. Since the start of the 2007-2008 season, Wilmington has posted a combined record of 69-10-10.

Wilmington's rivals have grown accustomed to falling short of the perennial North Shore powerhouse. However, the Wildcats are quick to point out that there is nothing routine about this year's title run.

For one, the Wildcats graduated 16 seniors last spring, including goalie and reigning CAL Player of the Year Zach Rosa. For another, the Wildcats will switch leagues — from the CAL to the Middlesex League — next season. This season figured to provide CAL foes one final chance to settle scores with a weakened Wilmington squad after years of taking part in lopsided rivalries.

The revenge tour against Wilmington hasn’t transpired. It's been business as usual for the Wildcats (15-2-2 overall, 13-1-1 CAL), who ran their CAL unbeaten streak to 29 games before falling to Newburyport on Feb. 12.

"We're always looking to send a message," says senior defenseman John Malone. "No one expected us to do this at all. We wanted to make a statement that we can play with anybody even though we lost so many people."

One area in which the Wildcats didn’t figure to struggle was scoring. The team returned sophomore Cam Owens, who burst onto the CAL scene as a freshman call-up from the junior varsity, netting 14 goals in 15. Owens has continued with his near goal-a-game average this season, netting 17 goals and 17 assists in 18 games.

Playing alongside his brother, senior Andy Owens (7 goals, 26 assists), and junior Dalton Rolli (12 goals, 4 assists), Owens possesses the ability to make an end-to-end rush through multiple defenseman at any time. Rolli has found that playing alongside Owens provides its own challenges, namely finding a few leftover goals for himself.

"It's something special," Rolli says. "The stick-handling ... what he can do with the puck is amazing. I've seen him go up and down the ice so many times. I skate behind him and see if I can get a rebound. It doesn’t really happen; he always puts it away."

While Wilmington's forwards dictate a frenetic pace, the team's defensemen force opposing forwards to exercise caution in their attempts to match speed with speed. Playing alongside Malone, Brian Hurley, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound football standout, is the catalyst for the team's physical style of play.

"I hit hard out there, and it makes the rest of the team want to do the same thing," Hurley says. "I like to start us off."

Hurley plans to resume his football career at the collegiate level as a defensive end and tight end. Scanlon believes Hurley also has the skills to be an enforcer on a college hockey team.

"He's very intimidating," Scanlon says. "He has crushed some kids over the years — even our own kids. He ended one kid's season in a practice this year. They're all clean hits, but he's bringing a lot of power with him."

Senior goalie Joe Aucoin, a career backup before this season, has filled the sizable shoes of Rosa, posting a 13-2-2 record and 1.75 goals-against average. Scanlon says his goalie has assuaged any concerns he regarding the position prior to the season.

"The net was a question mark at the beginning of the year," Scanlon says. "I think he's been the key to us doing as well as we have. He makes game-turning saves."

As he prepares to make his first state-tournament start, Aucoin says he is no longer concerned with being the next Zach Rosa.

"I definitely felt the pressure early because he was so good," Aucoin says. "Following his footsteps was tough, but I always knew I could play."

Scanlon and his players point to the Wilmington Youth Hockey League as another reason for the prolonged success of the program. As an indication of the preparedness of players who join the high school team, Wilmington's second forward line is comprised entirely of freshmen. The freshmen trio, Brendan McDonough (11 goals), Cody McGowan (6 goals) and Luke Foley (3 goals), have accounted for 20 goals.

"Wilmington hockey is a tradition," Malone says. "As a young kid, we all wanted to play high school hockey and be the best we could be. It's a winning tradition."