Bay State Breakers 16U Girls: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
Patience is a virtue.
Good things come to those who wait.
Patience is the best remedy for every trouble.
Many of us were reared on those time-honored sayings. From the time we first walked into a toy store, a supermarket or a candy shop, our parents passed along those or similar words of wisdom. Well, some may call them words of wisdom, but as I became older and wiser I viewed them more as stall tactics.
But I digress.
Whatever the intent, statements that stand the test of time and become ingrained and accepted universally generally have merit. The problem when it comes to patience is that, by definition, there are no time constraints on patience, and we have become a society of short attention spans.
So, for example, when mom told us that good things come to those who wait, the hoped-for positive results of our patience might be realized in five minutes or five years. Either way, the person who recommended patience can say, “I told you so.”
In our formative years – and even as we “mature” and our craving for instant gratification grows with each passing day – we often are unable to connect our patience to the reward we ultimately receive.
While that may or may not be the case for members of the Bay State Breakers Tier 2 girls 16U hockey team who had to wait more than two years to realize their dream of competing at the USA Hockey National Championships, there is another traditional saying that rings true for them: Better late than never.
The Breakers’ two-year wait to get a taste of Nationals finally ended last week when the team took the ice for its first game at the 2021-22 championship tournament.
“This year has been a great experience for us,” said head coach Dan Najarian, who has been with the group for seven years. “In Massachusetts we are unique in that we play a half season. The state tournament for 16U is around Thanksgiving and then the girls go play for their local high school or for prep schools. After we were able to qualify for Nationals, whenever the players would see each other or play against each other at local rinks, they would get together and take a picture to celebrate and post it on social media with a hashtag about going to Nationals. So, they were able to celebrate it that way and through exchanging text messages, so there was this excitement and build-up throughout the high-school season.”
After cruising through the 2019-20 regular season with a 29-9-9 record and being recognized by MYHockey Rankings as the second-ranked 14U Tier 2 team in the nation, the Breakers were preparing for the Massachusetts State Tournament and potentially their first opportunity to compete for a national championship. There are no Nationals for age groups younger than 14U, so the players had seen older teams from the organization qualify and heard about how memorable the experience is.
They couldn’t wait to see for themselves, but on a March evening following their final practice ahead of the state tournament, everything came to a screeching halt. A strange and deadly disease was spreading like wildfire around the globe and our lives were temporarily put on hold. At least that’s what we thought at the time.
State tournaments, district tournaments and Nationals all were all “canceled,” but we monitored the situation daily in hopes that COVID would run its course in a matter of weeks or months and that the events might be rescheduled. That was the assumption and what we hoped for, but no one really knew.
The initial response around the hockey world was disappointment and confusion, and the Breakers’ reaction was no different.
“We practiced on a Wednesday, and I think the tournament was scheduled to start that Thursday,” Najarian recalled. “We were wrapping up practice when I got the call, and I told the team all together in the lobby. It was very emotional. The kids were very upset. We were so excited to make a run at Nationals, so to get a call at the 11th hour and have it all wiped out, there was a high level of disappointment. Many of the players were crying, and we were all trying to figure out what was going on. It was a very difficult day at the rink for a lot of kids.”
As the weeks and months passed and rinks all over the country were shut down, players on top-ranked teams kept their hopes up, even contacting other clubs in hopes of setting up their own non-sanctioned tournaments to determine a “national champion.” We all waited for the tide to turn and the world to open up.
But that wouldn’t happen for a long time – much longer than any of us initially anticipated.
“My phone would ring every day, and every time I hoped that it was someone calling with good news that we would still get to do it,” Najarian said. “No one really knew what was going to happen, but the response to COVID in Massachusetts was pretty strict in terms of the lockdowns and sports being canceled, so after a little while it became pretty clear that we weren’t going to play since there was no hockey, lacrosse or baseball being played anywhere.”
Good things come to those who wait.
The message was the same everywhere. Be patient. Follow the rules to help slow the spread, and the warmer summer weather would bring an end to COVID. Life surely would return to normal by the fall, and kids around North America would be back on the ice.
That’s not exactly how it played out, though. The spread would slow, we would relax and then there would be a spike in cases. There would be second, third and maybe even fourth waves once flu season returned.
The start of the 2020-21 hockey season was delayed in most parts of the United States, but in some areas, it never got started at all. There would be no minor hockey season to speak of in Canada. USA Hockey said it would hold its National Championships a month later than usual.
COVID rules and restrictions differed from state to state and sometimes from city to city or county to county. Seasons were shortened. Travel was limited. Locker rooms were closed, so players dressed at home or in parking lots. Spectators were prohibited from entering rinks. Social distancing was required on benches. No shared water bottles. No team huddles. No group goal celebrations. Masks were worn by players on and off the ice in many areas.
We were thankful that many kids were back on the ice, but it wasn’t the youth hockey experience we all know and love.
The Breakers moved from 14U Tier 2 to Tier 1 last season, posted a 21-12-7 record and earned a national ranking of No. 15. Unfortunately, while state and district tournaments were held in many parts of the United States last spring, Massachusetts made an early decision to cancel its state championships as COVID surged in the Northeast. That decision resulted in only one Massachusetts team earning an at-large bid to Nationals instead of the usual two, which meant the Breakers would be left out once again.
“We stayed together and skated once a week to keep the legs fresh from the end of our season right up until the tournament teams were announced in hopes of getting an at-large bid,” Najarian said. “I knew when I didn’t get an email notice that we weren’t going.
“The first year was probably more difficult for us,” he continued, “because we were excited about the state tournament, we were a top seed and it was a brand new thing for the players to be able to go to Nationals. Last year, it was more of a stretch to get in since we didn’t have a last-ditch opportunity to make a nice run in the state tournament.”
Following two years of season-ending disappointments, Bay State entered the 2021-22 campaign focused on earning that elusive trip to Nationals. But to finally achieve that dream they would have to place among the top two at the state tournament in November. So, winning the state title was priority one, and the pressure felt by the players was palpable.
“They definitely felt some pressure to get in, and that was felt most at the state tournament,“ Najarian said. “We had a real nail-biter in the quarterfinals against the Flames to get to the semis. There were some nerves and jitters, but once we got past that game and won to get into the finals, I think we were able to relax a little bit and focus on winning the state championship because we knew we had qualified for Nationals.”
Following a 3-2 overtime win against the ninth-ranked Minuteman Flames in the quarterfinals, the Breakers beat the No. 20 North Suburban Wings, 6-1, in the semifinals before captuing the state title with a 3-1 victory against the No. 4 East Coast Wizards Nov. 28.
The nine players still on the team who had been moved to tears on that March night in the rink lobby – part of a group of 11 players returning from the 2020-21 team – finally would get their chance to play for the national championship starting March 31 in Philadelphia.
Three of those players – goalie Annabelle Najarian, defender Katie Murphy and forward Maddie Greenwood – have been with the team for seven years. Forward Julia Loughlin and defender Celia Benson are six-year vets. Forward Marion Legge has been with the team every other year for six years. Forward Savana Littlewood has played four seasons with the team as has defender Lucy Delgallo. Forward Reese Porter, forward Morgan Brady and defender Addie Paskowski have played two seasons, while Kelsie Littlewood has been on the team every-other year. Goalie Regan Fitzgerald is a three-year veteran, while Finley Crosby, Meghan Barrett, Lily Sparrow and Reese Pompeo came along for the ride this year. Sparrow also played with the team as a 12U.
“They all bring something special and have played great,” Najarian said during Nationals.
Najarian said the Breakers looked a little rusty during their first game at Nationals, a 3-2 loss to a very good 10th-ranked full-season Arizona Kachina team. There was no panic among the players, however, as they rebounded by allowing one goal over the next three contests – 4-1 victories over the eventual national champions and shutouts of the Nos. 17 and 21 teams.
“Once the players got used to the line combinations, defensive pairings and goalie rotations again and realized we were doing things the same way we always have, everything was fine, and they settled down,” Najarian said. “Our team defense and penalty killing was fantastic.”
Coaching continuity and stability certainly contributed to the team’s success and allowed the team to remain cool under pressure. Najarian’s assistants, Sean Murphy and Tom Benson, have been with him for six years.
Bay State posted a 3-2 record at Nationals. The results included a win and a one-goal loss against Premier Prep Purple from Minnesota – the nation’s top-ranked team and the eventual national champion – and a one-goal loss to the second-place Kachinas.
Paskowski led the Breakers in scoring with two goals and three assists, with Loughlin contributing four points while Savana Littlewood and Greenwood added three points apiece. Anabelle Najarian posted a 1.60 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage, and Fitzgerald led all netminders with a 0.54 GAA while also turning aside 97 percent of the shots fired her way.
But while the team’s showing and the individual performances were strong, that’s not what really matters for this group.
“This group has been together for so long, and of course we had a few players add and a few drops here and there,” Najarian said, “but for the most part, the core of the team has been together the whole way. To see all the kids reunite and be able to use hockey as a vehicle to get back to some sense of normalcy has been the best part of the experience. We made a conscious decision never to recruit a super team just to win a few more games. The players basically are all from the same small area on the South Shore of Boston. I know it’s a cliché, but we really are a family.”
And they may not be done yet since Najarian expects five defenders, five forwards and all three coaches back next year when the Breakers take a crack at a trip to 16U Tier 1 Nationals.
Good things come to those who wait.
After all the heartache, the band got back together and literally never missed a beat. The Breakers ended up one win from competing in the national-championship game, and when the final results were in, no one wanted the incredible two-year journey to end.
“My lasting memory will be all the players and parents having a big party after losing the semifinal game,” Najarian said. “No one missed it. No one wanted to miss it. That’s what it’s all about.”