The season began with a question.
Why not us?
When the season ended on the ice at Brown University’s Meehan Auditorium, the Warwick Lady Titans had their answer.
Warwick’s co-op squad captured the state girls’ hockey championship with a sweep of two-time defending champion La Salle in the best-of-three finals series. The Titans scored two early goals in Thursday’s game one and held off a charge to win 2-1. Friday night, with a partisan crowd behind them, they rallied from a 1-0 deficit and rode the MVP performance of freshman goalie Gabriella Dicomitis to another 2-1 victory and the series sweep.
The Titans are the first public school program to win the top division title since the Rhode Island Interscholastic League introduced girls’ hockey in 2002 and the first Warwick public school team to win a hockey championship since the Toll Gate boys won back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005.
Warwick’s run to the title capped a meteoric rise for a program that first laced up the skates just eight years ago and played in Division II until last season. It also answered that question, the mantra that the Titans had embraced from day one.
Why not us?
There was no reason.
“No public school has ever done it, so we basically said, ‘Why not?’” said Dicomitis, the MVP. “We had the team, we had everyone, we had forwards, defense, goaltenders so why not us? We did it. It’s awesome.”
The Titans were the No. 2 seed in the playoffs after finishing one point back of La Salle for first place. They won two of three from Bay View in their semifinal series and then matched up with the Rams, whom they’d lost to twice in the regular season.
Their appearance in the championship series was already historic. The Titans were the first public school program to get a shot at the top-division title since the first season of RIIL girls’ hockey.
But Warwick wasn’t satisfied with being there.
Madison Balutowski gave the Titans a 1-0 lead just 1:46 into Thursday’s series opener and Paula Cavanagh followed suit less than a minute after that. The Rams made a strong push in the final period and made it 2-1 with 3:39 to go, but the Titans kept them off the board the rest of the way, with Dicomitis making key saves and defenders blocking shots left and right.
On Friday, the Rams picked up where they left off and dominated the early action, taking a 1-0 lead less than three minutes in on a power play goal by Michaela McNamara. But the Titans had answers. Kelsey Holmes tied the game in the second period, and Abby Ellis gave Warwick the lead with 9:27 left in the third. After holding off another furious charge by the Rams in the final minutes, the Titans celebrated a history-making championship.
“This team, nothing was going to deny them,” said Warwick head coach Dave Tibbetts. “Everything was bouncing our way pretty much. We battled for every puck the best we could. Our goalie played outstanding. We got some timely goals. We played disciplined. The kids just gutted it out.”
For all the program’s recent success, the Titans had still never won a playoff game before this season.
Now, they’ve won some very big ones.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” said Ellis, a junior. “I didn’t expect anything like this this year. We just worked so hard and we deserved it.”
The series clincher required plenty more work. Just over a minute into the game, Warwick’s Savannah Hersey was whistled for an interference penalty. A night after flawlessly killing four penalties, the Titans had no such luck this time. On the left edge of the slot, McNamara took a pass from the right circle and one-timed a shot into the net for the 1-0 lead just 2:27 into the game. Martha Peppes assisted.
It was a tough spot, but the Titans didn’t panic.
“We keep preaching about not getting too high or too low during a game or during the season, and that’s helped us maintain our mental focus,” Tibbetts said. “We were getting some good opportunities and we just had to wait until we got one to go in. We were staying positive. We just kept working. One goal we didn’t feel was going to win the game.”
The Titans spent much of the rest of the period on the power play, with the Rams picking up three penalties, but they came up empty on each chance.
They still trailed 1-0 into the final minutes of the second period, but that’s when Holmes gave them life. She blocked a La Salle pass at the blue line then tracked down the puck in the neutral zone. With a defender chasing, she cut to the left then juked back to the right and gave herself an open look. She fired a wrist shot past La Salle goalie Kathryn Doorley and into the net, tying the game with 1:48 left in the period.
“I just did everything I could,” Holmes said. “Once I looked up, I knew it was time. I just shot it. Then I fell and everybody was on me.”
The goal gave the Titans a jolt as they headed to the locker room in a 1-1 tie.
“That’s the kind of player she is,” Tibbetts said of his sophomore forward. “She can come out and put a surge on like that with just her individual effort. We needed that. That was a big lift, obviously, momentum-wise. It got us going – not just the momentum of the goal, but the type of goal it was. We talked in the locker room about the type of goal she had and letting that inspire everybody else. The effort was just tremendous.”
And the Titans weren’t done.
With 9:27 left, Ellis intercepted an attempted clearing pass by the Rams at the right point and immediately rifled the puck toward the net. It deflected off the stick of a La Salle player and past Doorley.
“Our plan was to put it on net as much as possible,” Ellis said. “I just got the puck and shot it and it got deflected in. I was in shock.”
While the deflection was a stroke of luck, the blast – and the lack of hesitation – by Ellis set it up.
“She shot it hard,” Tibbetts said. “We keep telling them, the harder you work, the luckier you get. Maybe we got a bounce there, but it was still putting the puck on net.”
A little over nine minutes stood between the Titans and a title, but they knew from the night before that it would not be an easy nine minutes. The Rams had come at them hard as they tried for a tying goal in game one. Now they were primed to do it again.
“I was just thinking, ‘I’ve got nine minutes left and then I can cry and jump and celebrate,’” Dicomitis said. “I knew I had to play my game and not let up any goals.”
The action was up-and-down for the next few minutes, with Doorley saving a shot on a Holmes breakaway and Dicomitis turning away McNamara on a quick turnaround shot from the right circle.
Over the final four minutes, the Rams dominated possession but could never break through. Maleah Gillette and Emily Coughlin had slap shots blocked and McNamara was denied on a shot from a tough angle on the goal line.
With 1:44 left, the Rams pulled Doorley, but Warwick cleared the puck twice. With 48 seconds left, Ashley DeFusco got a decent look on the right side but her wrist shot was saved. After a faceoff a few seconds later, a scramble in front of the net ensued, but Warwick knocked the puck to the corner.
With 36 seconds left, another challenge was added to the mix when the Titans picked up a penalty. But even with a six-on-four advantage, the Rams never got another clean look.
Ellis won the faceoff after the penalty and Given buried the puck in the corner for a solid 10 seconds. When La Salle finally got it out, Gillette’s pass from the goal line to the point sailed all the way to the other end. The Titans gave chase and never let the Rams get the puck back into the zone.
“I think what starts to happen is late in the game, you’re down by a goal, you grip the stick a little tighter,” said La Salle head coach Sean McNamara. “Maybe some poise would be better, but they’re laying it on the line, pushing as hard as they can. I couldn’t be prouder of how hard they battled.”
For the Titans, the furious finish was nothing new. They were up to the challenge.
“Just another fire drill,” Tibbetts said. “We somehow came out with it. We tried to keep it to the corners, not worry about clearing unless we had an opening. They know the situation. They’ve been through that and they’re used to it. Not that it was easy, but they just fought as hard as they could. They wanted it and they got it.”
When the buzzer sounded, sticks and helmets and gloves went flying. The Titans piled onto Dicomitis as their fans went wild.
“I’m speechless,” said senior captain Jaime Given. “We went from literally last to first in four years. It was crazy, hectic, hard work, but in the end, it was all worth it.”
Dicomitis made 17 saves in game two on her way to the Alice Sullivan MVP award.
“You can’t put it into words,” Dicomitis said. “You’re speechless the entire time. We did it. It’s amazing. I’m on top of the world right now.”
The rest of the Titans were right there with her.
“It means everything,” Holmes said. “We worked so hard every single day. We’re a family. It’s an incredible feeling.”