Spartans are pioneers to girls' hockey

“For we cannot tarry here,

We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger”

--Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”, 1865

LYNN, Mass. – In the twilight of the Civil War, Walt Whitman’s poem played to the American spirit, with its imagery of the frontier emboldening the nation to push forward through its struggles.

It’s also an apt rallying cry for the St. Mary’s of Lynn girls’ hockey team.

Winners of last three Division 1 state championships, the Spartans are the face of the sport in the Commonwealth. Not only has St. Mary’s seen the best efforts from the state’s best teams game after game during the last three seasons, the Spartans also have borne the weight of a 77-game…Check that, 78-game unbeaten streak (after Saturday’s tie against Braintree). With each passing period and game, pressure has mounted on the program to live up to their own lofty standards.

Don’t be fooled, there are plenty of suitors across the state who are worthy opponents and will vie to become the first team not named St. Mary’s to win the D-1 title since 2007 (Arlington Catholic). It’s just that the Spartans are supremely capable of bringing their best to the rink every night.

“It’s not about the streak really,” St Mary’s senior center Sabrina Iannetti said, “it’s just about going out each game. We don’t really care about how many games we’ve won in a row, just as long as we get to the state championship game and win. That’s all we care about.”

Not only have the Spartans rattled off an unbeaten streak for the ages, they’re leading the pack in the ever-growing sphere of girls’ hockey in Massachusetts. Every year, girls’ hockey programs have been added at MIAA schools, following the lead prep school predecessors set a few decades ago. Girls’ hockey has also expended at the developmental level. It’s more likely now to find dedicated girls’ hockey programs at your local rink.

Greater participation has created greater competition, but through it all, St. Mary’s has remained at the forefront since its entered play in 2002.

“I think of lot of those girls grew up watching [Cammi] Granato and those U.S. Olympic teams and seeing the development of women’s college hockey at a high level,” St. Mary’s sixth-year head coach Frank Pagliuca said. “I think that caught a lot of the kids’ eyes and I think the towns are doing a better job of supporting the girls, too, providing them opportunities and developing girls’ leagues.

“It’s not only that the level of play has gotten better, it’s so important that girls have been given the option to play hockey.”

Pagliuca was first exposed to St. Mary’s prowess in 2005, when he was the bench boss of Wakefield girls’ hockey and the Spartans went on to a Division 2 state title, their first. That year St. Mary’s rolled over Pagliuca’s Warriors squad. After St. Mary’s former head coach Todd Langlais left for an assistant coaching job at Boston University, the job came to Pagliuca.

“Our practices are very intense and very competitive,” the Wakefield native said. “So the girls just bring that mentality with them into the games. The kids work very hard, they’re committed to the program and I think they’re committed to each other, so they push each other to do better and hold each other accountable. I think that’s an important concept our success and it’s all a reflection of what the kids put into it.”

It’s also a reflection of the Spartans’ methodology on the ice.

“We play as a team, it’s not about getting the puck to just one player,” senior center Bridget Donovan said. “We try to create space and create opportunities to score and see what happens.”

Simpler stated than accomplished, the Spartans have won with some of the state’s best hockey talent. Chief among that industrious list is Providence College’s Abby Gauthier, who tallied a mind-boggling 358 points at St. Mary’s. Perhaps even more impressive, Gauthier’s output was perfectly balanced: 159 goals, 159 assists. The quintessential Spartan.

St. Mary’s lost a couple key pieces from last year’s title run, including Courtney Winters who finished her career as the program’s second leading scorer behind Gauthier. However, the Spartans have depth up the middle of their lineup with Iannetti leading the scoring charge and sisters Bridget and Mikaela Donovan centering lines. The Spartans will be strong in their own end behind blue liner Angela Dandreo and sophomore goaltender Sarah Foss, whom Pagliuca already considers among the best in the state.

Underling the Spartans’ talent is their commitment to improving both individually and as a team, a tenant Pagliuca has instilled in his players.

“He keeps us focused game to game, practice to practice,” Dandreo said. “He’s the one who makes sure that don’t focus on the streak or anything like that. He makes sure that we’re focused on the game.”

With that mentality, St. Mary’s has blazed its trail. They are pioneers to a new frontier.

Heck, they’re league ahead of their nearest boys’ competitors. The Spartans earned the state record for consecutive games without a loss in January. Northeast Regional had a record of 55-0-3 over a 58-game stretch to set the state record. St. Mary’s has since gone on to add 20 games and counting to their unbeaten streak.

“I think we all played on boys’ teams when we were younger,” Mikaela Donovan said. “It wasn’t until we were in middle school probably that you actually started to see girls’ team around. Now, you see them more and more, and that’s a good thing.”

Pioneers? Oh yeah, they’re pioneers.