Monday was the biggest day in the history of the Warwick girls’ hockey program.
When it was over, the Lady Titans had made the kind of history they’d been hoping for all season.
Playing in a winner-take-all third game in the state semifinals against Bay View, Warwick set the tone from the second the puck was dropped, scoring two goals in the first period on its way to a dominant 4-1 victory over the Bengals and a place in the state championship series against two-time defending champion La Salle.
Abby Ellis scored and had three assists while playing the majority of the game, Madison Balutowski scored twice and had an assist and Kelsey Holmes had a goal as well. In net, Gabriella Dicomitis was barely tested, as Warwick’s defense limited Bay View to just 11 shots on net.
It was the first-ever series win for the Warwick program, and the No. 2 seeded Titans will become just the second public school program to play for the championship in the state’s highest division, the first since Burrillville got there in 2002-03 - the inaugural season for girls’ hockey in the state.
No public school has ever won the state championship. That’s certainly Warwick’s next goal, but on Monday the Lady Titans were too busy basking in their semifinal win to worry about that right away.
“I think we just realized that it’s all or nothing,” Ellis said. “This game is do or die. If we had lost we’d be done for the season. We just didn’t want to do that. Our captain Jaime (Given) gave us a really good speech at the beginning, it got us all pumped up. We basically did it for the seniors tonight - we didn’t want this to be their last game.”
The game came on the heels of a disappointing 3-0 loss for Warwick on Saturday night in game two of the series. But Monday’s game showcased a very different Warwick team.
“I’ve been excited for this game since Saturday night, and I actually couldn’t sleep last night waiting for it,” said freshman defenseman Natasha Savage.
The Lady Titans shortened the bench for the game, rolling just two lines - Balutowski, Holmes and Alyssa Mathews along with Paula Cavanagh, Marianna Brawn and Given - while playing just three defensemen - Ellis, Savage and Savannah Hersey.
Mathews was a big boost, as she played her first game of the postseason after missing the first two with a concussion. She was cleared by a doctor earlier in the day.
“I got right back out there,” Mathews said. “I was so excited watching them, I just wanted to be out there.”
In front of a crowd of over 350 people at Thayer Arena, Warwick won the opening faceoff and immediately started putting pressure on Bay View goaltender Britney Evangelista.
Mathews took a backhand barely wide of Evangelista in the first minute, and that was just the beginning of the assault.
“We knew we were going to have a lot of people here supporting us,” said Warwick head coach Dave Tibbetts. “We wanted to come out. We practice here, kids have skated here their whole lives. This is our rink, our home. We didn’t want to let them take anything away from us here. We were ready.”
Barely over two minutes into the game, Balutowski got free near the crease on the right and took a shot, but Evangelista knocked it out toward the right circle. Holmes was there, and she fired a shot back on net that popped in the right side and gave Warwick a 1-0 lead. Ellis was also credited with an assist.
After seven more minutes of dominance for the Lady Titans, they broke through again. With 5:38 to play in the period, Bay View turned the puck over in its own zone and Ellis was happy to make the Bengals pay. She took a slap shot from just inside the blue line on the right that beat Evangelista, making it 2-0.
In the first two games of the series, Warwick scored just one goal. In a little over a half a period on Monday, it doubled that number.
“That was the most exciting hockey I’ve ever played in my life,” Savage said of the first period.
It was all part of the plan.
“They just rose to the occasion,” Tibbetts said. “They knew what was at stake and they didn’t want to back down. Our gameplan was to put everything into the first period and to come out with the lead and go from there.”
Late in the period, Warwick was called for two penalties, giving Bay View 43 seconds of a 5-on-3 and then 1:17 more of a power play.
Still emphasizing intensity, the Lady Titans didn’t even blink. Bay View barely gained the zone at all, and it didn’t get a single shot on net.
When the period was over, Warwick had out-shot Bay View 9-2.
“We diagramed how to kill against their power play and we practice it,” Tibbetts said. “That definitely helped. But we wanted to match them physically tonight and not be intimidated at all.”
The second period was more even - Warwick only out-shot the Bengals 9-7 - but the Lady Titans were still clearly in control. They were whistled for two penalties in the first five minutes of the period, yet the penalty kill took care of business once again. With just over three minutes to play, Dicomitis was tested for the first time all night on a shot by Julia Plumb in the low slot, but Dicomitis slid to her left and smothered the puck. On the ensuing faceoff to the goalie’s left, Bay View won it and Alexandria Rodi got a clear path to Dicomitis, but her shot was saved as well.
Warwick was called for one more penalty late in the period, but Bay View was whistled for one shortly afterwards. That set up a 4-on-4 situation, and when the period ended Warwick still had 41 seconds left of the power play.
More importantly, the Lady Titans had 15 minutes between them and a state championship berth.
“They really did a good job as the game got later and later,” Tibbetts said. “We were trying to be more defensive, but we were still getting scoring opportunities.”
The third period played out the same way. Warwick was in full control, and Bay View eventually took a timeout with 4:51 to play. It didn’t change a thing.
With 1:47 to go, Ellis stole the puck in the neutral zone and carried it into Bay View’s zone. It was poked away there, but it went right to Balutowski, who was trailing. She controlled it and then fired a wrist shot into the top-right corner to make it 3-0, setting off a wild celebration.
Balutowski, the state’s leading scorer, had been held scoreless throughout the first two games of the series.
“She was a little snake-bitten, but she’s been getting a lot of opportunities,” Tibbetts said. “It’s hard to maintain the level of scoring she’s had all season long - leading the whole state in goals - eventually you’re going to go through a little lull. And now she’s breaking out at the right time.”
Bay View managed to strike quickly off the next faceoff, as Rose Mahoney scored on a bouncing puck in front with 1:05 left.
Down two with 51 seconds left, Bay View pulled its goalie and put some pressure on Dicomitis until Ellis stole the puck and got it up to Balutowski. She skated over her own blue line and, from behind mid-ice, rifled a shot into the empty net to clinch the win.
The final 14 seconds ticked off and Warwick celebrated a landmark win.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Ellis said. “We couldn’t have done it without the fans. They got us so pumped up.”
For the game, Warwick out-shot Bay View 29-11, and it out-shot the Bengals 91-43 in the series.
Now it’s on to the finals, where the Titans will take on top-seeded La Salle. The Rams beat Warwick two out of the three times they played during the regular season and edged the Lady Titans out for the regular season title by a single point.
On paper, it’s a match-up of the two best teams. The series opens up on Thursday at Brown’s Meehan Auditorium at 6 p.m., with a second game scheduled for Friday at 8 p.m., at the same venue. Date and time for a third game, if necessary, is yet to be determined.
Warwick hopes its magical season will come with a fitting ending.
“It was a feeling of relief, but we’re still not satisfied yet,” Tibbetts said. “We’re really happy we won the series. It was a hard-fought series obviously. We’re enjoying it tonight, and tomorrow we’re back at practice getting ready for La Salle on Thursday.”