In 2006, the Warwick girls’ hockey co-op team made its Rhode Island Interscholastic League debut and won its first game by an 11-1 score over Bishop Keough.
Maybe it was a sign of things to come. Maybe it was just a good start with a long road ahead. Either way, that blowout win on a December night in Woonsocket was the official beginning of a very special journey. A club program finally got off the ground as a varsity program thanks to parents and students and coaches who wouldn’t take no for an answer. An improving team took the next step and became a contender in recent years. And in 2014, the contending team contended its way right to the state championship.
Title journeys are always special. Talented players who grew up playing together raise the trophy. Teams hit obstacles and clear them. Programs make history.
The story of girls’ hockey in Warwick goes well beyond. How about talented players who grew up playing together in a youth program that wouldn’t have been there if they were younger? Teams whose obstacles included, you know, learning how to skate? And a program that didn’t exist eight years ago making hockey history?
It’s been a heck of a ride.
“It was really a heart-warming milestone to see the girls win the championship,” said Kevin Chronley, one of the pioneers of the program.
Ten years ago, a high school girls’ hockey team was but a twinkle in the eye of people like Chronley, Brenda Resendes, Bob Cushman and Tom Bernache. They were parents, teachers, coaches, hockey fans. They sat around kitchen tables and figured out how to make an idea happen.
When Toll Gate won its back-to-back hockey championships in 2004 and 2005, it fueled interest in the sport. A few girls at Toll Gate had grown up playing hockey but their opportunities had run out.
Chronley’s daughter, Brittany, was a freshman at the time. Their family had just moved from Chicago, where Kevin, a hockey coach, had started a boys’ high school program.
“My daughter didn’t understand why we couldn’t do it twice,” Chronley said with a laugh.
He laughs because it was not so easy. Cushman arranged a meeting with school officials, who explained why girls’ hockey couldn’t happen. Money, interest, ice time. The list went on.
To the pioneers, it was an attack plan.
“When we understood the reasons, we had volunteers, parents, kids going little by little to whittle away at them,” Chronley said.
They started a club program to generate interest and raise funds. Girls came out. They wanted to play, even if they had never played before.
In 2006, they gained approval from the school committee and from the Rhode Island Interscholastic League. At the time, co-op teams were uncommon, and the league had concerns. Based on school size, they would have rather seen three teams.
“They gave us an audience and we explained that we couldn’t go from zero to three,” Chronley said. “There was not enough interest, not enough ice time, not enough funds, not enough anything. The fact that they listened and would hear us out was instrumental.”
The RIIL signed off and girls’ hockey was born. Suddenly, girls who hung up their skates when they hit high school had a team to play for. It was a changing world.
And Warwick’s hockey community ran with it.
While Chronley and Julie Peters coached the high school team, Warwick Junior Hockey introduced a girls’ program. Irony would have it that the man who got it off the ground was Warwick’s Sean McNamara, who also happens to coach La Salle, who happened to lose to Warwick in the championship.
The program came along at a perfect time, when daughters of hockey players and sisters of hockey players were chomping at the bit for their time on the ice.
“We started the program and we had some great success – numerous state championships,” McNamara said. “It probably kept a lot of those girls playing hockey. At the time, there weren’t a lot of opportunities and options for girls. Warwick had a great run in youth hockey and it’s fed the Warwick schools. It culminated in a state championship.”
Even with an influx of talent, the high school team faced hurdles. Dave Tibbetts took over as head coach in 2010 and inherited a team that was still getting its legs. As is still the case for many Division II teams, it’s a battle.
“When we got here, we saw a long road,” said assistant coach Ryan Henderson. “There were times when it seemed like we would never get past certain things. Like, this is the wall and that’s it. Some teams hit that. The perseverance of all the players that have come through the program is amazing. They’ve built this thing.”
Warwick set a program record for wins in Tibbetts’s second season. What happened next was a leap of faith. In a changing girls’ hockey landscape, with a lot of talent in the pipeline, the Titans moved to Division I. They had ups and downs in their first year but ultimately won 10 games, with a veteran core leading the first wave of that young talent.
The second wave arrived this year and the rise continued. The Titans were in first place for much of the season and their lineup included the top scorer in the state.
There was one hurdle left.
“When I came in last year, the thing I noticed the most was we needed to get over the hump of the public school vs. private schools difference,” said assistant coach Tom McCormick. “If we were going to get to where we wanted to be, we had to get through the private schools and we couldn’t be intimidated by them. It took them a full year to realize, ‘We’re just as good as these teams.’”
The journey was capped in storybook fashion Friday night, when the Titans rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat the Rams. Fans packed the stands at Brown’s Meehan Auditorium, embracing a team that has become the city’s darling.
“Monday night we thought the crowd was big,” said captain Jaime Given. “Tonight was crazy, all the people that came out, not just for me, not just for other people on the team. They came out for all of us. To see us as a city make history, to do something that’s never been done before is just awesome.”
McNamara was on the opposite bench while the Titans celebrated. Next to him was one of his assistant coaches, Danika Korpacz, who was on the first Titans team. As much as they were hurting for their own team, they were happy to tip their caps.
“I’ve coached probably 90 percent of those girls in youth hockey,” McNamara said. “I love those girls and they deserve all the credit. Great job by the coaching staff. It’s bittersweet but I couldn’t be happier for that group of girls. I’m thrilled to death for them and what they were able to accomplish.”
Tibbetts stood in the tunnel outside the locker room, cheers echoing through the walls behind him, trying to catch his breath. It was a chance to reflect. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds, even just since he took over, and Warwick has become the state’s girls’ hockey capital. La Salle and Bay View each have several Warwick players, and his Titans are at the center of the surge.
“Warwick is a good hockey town,” Tibbetts said. “We’ve got two sheets of ice, a really nice rink. A lot of people grew up playing hockey and now their daughters are playing. I got an email from Brenda Resendes today wishing us luck. They started the program literally on a kitchen table. She said, ‘We’re really excited for you guys.’ They deserve a lot of credit for getting this program off the ground.”
Chronley was out of town, but wished he could have been at Brown for the championship moment. He’s touched base with his fellow grassroots pioneers in recent weeks, reminiscing and marveling at how far the program has come.
When he was on the Titans’ bench, he used to say – with affection – that his players were a little delusional for wanting to give hockey a try.
They’re not delusional anymore. They’re hockey players. They’ve got a team and a city and a whole lot of people behind them.
And they’re champions.
“I get chills thinking about it,” Chronley said. “So much effort, by so many people, and girls’ hockey has taken off in such a big, exciting way. It’s just great to see.”
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @RhodyWill.