The Warwick girls’ hockey team got the monkey off its back with the program’s first-ever playoff series victory in the state semifinals against Bay View.
That was a seminal moment for the team, which has gradually progressed every year until finally taking the next step. But just getting over the first hurdle isn’t the Lady Titans’ only goal. They’re aiming for another first – a first championship.
They’re two wins away.
Beginning today, the No. 2 seeded Lady Titans will take on top-seeded and two-time defending state champion La Salle in the best-of-three state championship series at Brown’s Meehan Auditorium. Game one is slated for 6 p.m. tonight, with a second game scheduled for Friday at 8 p.m. A third game, if necessary, will be Sunday, with the time still to be determined.
Warwick is not only seeking its first-ever title, it’s trying to become the first public school program in history to win the overall state championship. It’s only the second public school team to even make it this far.
“We’re excited,” said sophomore Alyssa Mathews. “We’re in the state championship. We’re ready to put it all out there and we’re ready to win it. We’re ready to show everybody that a public school can win it all.”
To do it, though, the Lady Titans will have to go through a balanced yet high-powered La Salle team that doesn’t want to see its run of championships come to a close. The Rams swept fourth-seeded Burrillville/ Ponaganset by scores of 6-3 and 4-0 in the state semifinals to reach this point.
Warwick and La Salle were neck-and-neck all season long, with La Salle edging out Warwick for the No. 1 seed in the postseason by just a single point.
In three regular season meetings between the two, the Rams had a two games to one edge, as they prevailed each of the final two times the teams met.
On Dec. 7, Warwick made an early-season statement with a 6-0 win. But La Salle got revenge, wining 3-1 on Dec. 28 and then 4-2 on Feb. 1.
“We’ve played them well every time,” Tibbetts said. “We beat them once. At this point, anybody can win. It just comes down to who wants it more. They’re a good team, they’re well-coached, and they’re the two-time defending champs. They belong there, until someone knocks them off.”
By any measure, not only are Warwick and La Salle the two best teams in the state, but there is also very little to indicate that one is significantly better than the other.
The head-to-head match-ups and the overall records certainly show how close the two teams are, as does each team’s goal differential. Warwick scored 71 goals and allowed a league-low 31, while La Salle scored a league-high 76 goals and allowed just 42. The Lady Titans were second in goals scored, while La Salle was second in goals allowed.
Each team also uses a bevy of young talent, as La Salle doesn’t have a single senior on its roster, while Warwick has only two.
“There’s a different feeling this year,” Tibbetts said. “In years past, they’ve been well above the rest of the competition, especially last year. This year, we don’t have that feeling. They’re a really good team and they have some elite players, they play well together, but we think we match up with them as well as any other team. We’re looking forward to dropping the puck on Thursday night.”
In net, Warwick freshman Gabriella Dicomitis led the division in goals against during the regular season with a 1.91 mark – and she allowed just three goals in three games in the semifinals against Bay View – while La Salle freshman Kathryn Doorley was right behind her in second in the division with a 2.37 GAA.
Scoring wise, Warwick sophomore Madison Balutowski led the state with 30 goals and 41 points, and she finally broke through in the semifinals with two goals in the final two minutes of game three, her first two goals of the series.
Balutowski has had plenty of success against La Salle this year, registering a hat trick in Warwick’s victory over the Rams and scoring once in each of the losses.
La Salle’s top scorer is junior Michaela McNamara, who was just behind Balutowski with 40 points this season. She had 15 goals and 25 assists during the year, but then took her game to another level in the semifinals. She had four goals in game one – plus an assist – and then recorded a hat trick in the second game, giving her eight points and seven goals in La Salle’s sweep.
“She’s been hot in the playoffs – she had four goals the other night and I think three in the second game,” Tibbetts said. “She’s got a hot hand right now.”
The similarities between the two teams don’t stop there, as Warwick’s next leading scorer is sophomore Kelsey Holmes with 10 goals and 21 assists, while La Salle has Arianna Boscia – who scored all four goals in the Rams’ Feb. 1 win over Warwick – with 21 goals and seven assists. Warwick’s Abby Ellis is perhaps the top defenseman in the state and has 10 goals and 14 assists from her spot in the back, but La Salle has three other players – Martha Peppes, Emily Coughlin and Cailin Catarina with at least 21 points. Coughlin was first-team All-State last year, while McNamara was second.
“Peppes is good, Boscia, she had four goals on us the second time and basically beat us herself,” Tibbetts said. “They definitely have some high-powered forwards and a couple of really good defensemen. We’ll see how we match up.”
La Salle enters the series riding a seven-game winning streak, and Warwick is playing nearly as well. The Lady Titans have won six of their last seven.
It’s fitting, then, that the two best teams in the state will look for any separation at all on the biggest stage in Rhode Island high school girls’ hockey.
“This team has never won a championship,” Ellis said. “This year we’re going to prove that we can.”