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D1 Girls Final: Reading 3, A-B 0

BOSTON -- For players like Rachel Thomson, Dani Seibold and the rest of their senior counterparts, a lesson about staying the course was learned on Sunday.

Four years ago, Reading's current senior class of hockey players, struggled mightily as freshmen, finishing the year with just three victories in a season most would rather soon forget. But for this particular group, they have never forgotten and used that 2012 season as their own personal battle cry moving forward.

For them, and the rest of their teammates, hours upon hours of time, sweat, hard work and attention to detail became this team's primary mission in an attempt to rectify their game to peak level. The culmination of that hard labor paid off momentously for Rockets after laying claim to their first Division 1 state championship following a 3-0 victory over Acton-Boxborough inside TD Garden.

Make no mistake about it, the long journey for this title was four years in the making. The last two years, Reading improved considerably to qualify for the postseason only to see it end quickly on both occasions.

"The reason we got here is because we never gave up," said Thomson, who scored the Rockets first goal "Even when we had three wins we always knew this would be our goal. It's really nice to see it pay off for us today."

This season, Reading was hell-bent on going deeper into the postseason than any Rocket team of the past. Rejoicing in being selected the No. 1 team in tournament's field of 22 was not enough to quench the Rockets pursuit for greatness.

Throughout the tournament, Reading overpowered its foes with relative ease, Sunday's finale not withstanding. The Rockets posted four consecutive shutouts en route to the crown. Ironically, all by the same 3-0 margin.

Reading head coach Michael Golden had a luxury most other teams did not -- the ability to play three solid lines. Most of the teams in the girls division are made up of two lines at best.

With their range of depth, speed and ability to create space and fire off shots with regularity, it would take a near-perfect performance by an opposing team just to have a chance against the Rockets.

That was not case Sunday. Reading (22-2) came out strong and continued its foot on the throat deportment through the entire 45 minutes. Having already beaten A-B once during the regular season (6-1), the Rockets knew the importance of getting on top early.

"Having played them earlier this year we felt their strength would be to try and jump out to a quick lead," Golden said. "For us to come out early and get the lead, it allowed us to do the things that we like to do."

Indeed, Reading needed just 2:15 of the opening period to employ their will over the sixth-seeded Colonials (18-4-3).

Three consecutive shots on A-B goaltender Cali Loblundo ended with Thomas, positioned just to the right of A-B net, grabbing a rebound and lifting a backhand shot into the open right side of the net for a 1-0 lead.

"It's been a kind of recurring theme with us that we get the lead in the first period," Golden said. "When we do, we roll our three lines and four defensemen and try to keep things to the outside. It's been a formula that has obviously worked pretty well for us. We made a conscious effort this year, because of our shortcomings in the state tournament the last couple of years, that not only did we want to play all three of our lines but we wanted all of our lines to be engaged. Unlike past years, this team had a different mentality. We knew we could win the Middlesex League but we were looking at something much bigger. Our goal was to get to the final four of this tournament. We felt if we could get there we could be dangerous."

Three minutes would pass after Thomson's score before Reading's offense would mount another surged. With a battle for puck possession 10 feet out in front of Loblundo, Tori Grimmer, a junior, got her stick on it and fired a hard wrist shot into the low right hand corner, which Loblundo was late in reacting to, giving the Rockets a comfortable two goal cushion.

Comfortable in the fact that Reading junior goaltender Jessica Strack had not surrendered a goal this entire postseason and held a 0.90 goals against average to boot. Strack came on late in the season as a replacement for injured starter Kayla St. Pierre and has shined ever since.

Throughout the first frame, the Rockets were in total control, setting up camp often inside the Colonials' zone and sending 13 shots Loblundo's way.

As was its objective from the outset, Reading refused to allow the Colonials much room to work with once they had the puck. Switching their lines quickly in order to remain fresh, the Rockets continued to break up plays in the neutral zone and sprinted back on defense to back check pucks away.

"We kept our shifts short and each line came out and played their hardest during the 30 seconds to a minute they were out there," Seibold said. "They only had two lines going and we had three so we just kept rolling."

A-B came out for the middle period a bit more aggressive on the offensive end, but the handful of quality attempts put on Strack (16 saves) were limited thanks to some shut down defensive play from Andrea Uglietta, Skylar Cain, Caroline Seibold and Ryley Coleman.

"We tried to fight back in the second and third periods but things just didn't go our way," said Colonials senior Alex Loblundo. "It took us a while to get into the game and I think that affected us. But credit Reading. They're an amazing team."

While the Rockets continued to move the puck into the offensive zone substantially, their ability to reach the back of the net was becoming more and more dubious. Loblundo, a junior, was able to shake off the cobwebs from earlier, and reverted back to her reputation as being as one of the top lock down goalies in the state.

"This could have been 8-0 if it wasn't for Cali Loblundo," A-B head coach Brian Fontas said. "We needed a big game from her and she gave it to us. She gave us a chance but we just couldn't find the back of the net. Reading is a damn good team. I didn't think we had our legs in the first period and I knew if they went up on us it was going to be tough to come back because they hadn't allowed a goal the entire postseason."

Time and time again, Loblundo (37 stops) turned aside numerous point-blank and rebound opportunities to keep A-B within striking distance. On two occasions, she snatched shots mid-air with her catching glove that would have been definite scores.

After 30 minutes, the Colonials had only 15 remaining in their season to do something spectacular. At times they were able to get some attempts off but were also beginning to show signs of fatigue with their two line system. During the early minutes of the third, A-B looked a bit lethargic, allowing Reading to skate past them or get caught from behind and having the puck stolen away on its few breakout chances.

In the closing minutes, the Colonials tried to reach for something extra and, in the process, managed to line up a couple quality chances on net. But Strack held her line of defense keeping it a two goal lead.

"I have no words on how I've been feeling this entire season," said Strack. "It's been absolutely crazy to have this happen. It was important for me to not think of these last few games as playoff games but think of them as regular games. For me, it was important to just focus on the person shooting the puck at the moment and take things one shot at a time."

In the final minute, and with Loblundo pulled for the extra skater, Dani Seibold scored into the empty net from just inside the blue line to account for Reading's three goal margin of victory.

"It was important for us to come out strong against them," said Rockets junior and leading goal scorer Ali O'Leary (41 goals). "We did that the last time we played them and it worked out well. We felt like we needed to come out strong on them again this time. We did and again it worked. Getting those two goals in the first was huge for us."