Around the state, the high school hockey landscape is drastically changing. For the Warwick girls’ hockey team, it could either be a blessing or a curse.
Regardless, Warwick figures to send perhaps the best team the program has ever assembled to the ice in its sixth season in existence. It just needs to see how everything else shakes out.
The Lady Titans bring back every single player off last year’s team except one, and they’ve added a group of freshmen that are expected to make an impact right from the start.
Warwick will also have a new home, as the state’s only division, known as Division I last season, split into two divisions. The Lady Titans will play in the DeCosta Division, along with six other schools.
The other division is called the Emma Division, and will host traditional powers Mount St. Charles, La Salle, Bay View and Burrillville/Ponaganset.
At the end of the season, there will be two championships, with the top four teams competing for the state championship, while everybody else plays for a separate title. The state championship teams will likely be the four from the Emma Division, but a team from the DeCosta division could technically qualify if it has more points – which come from a brand-new, weighted points system – than one of the four Emma teams.
What that means for Warwick is that, with a good season, it could either be one of the top seeds for the second title or, be the No. 4 seed for the state title, which would give it an uphill climb to a championship.
Essentially, a strong season could be rewarded with a standard trip through the playoffs or a most-likely impossible journey through the state’s best teams.
It’s a lot to take in, but head coach Dave Tibbetts has his team simply concentrating on what it can control at this point in the year.
“With the new point alignment system, we’re just going to take things one game at a time,” he said. “You can’t really point your finger at one thing right now.”
Warwick has been practicing since Nov. 14, and the early returns are nothing but positive. The Lady Titans have 24 girls on the team, and they’re all contributing so far.
With a year of experience under their belt, for many of the girls, and some strong play from last year’s 6-10 season to build on, Tibbetts has already seen a significant change for the better in this year’s team.
“If you saw our first practice this year and our first practice last year, it’s like night and day,” he said.
The team is led by its strong group of forwards.
The top line figures to be Toll Gate junior Emily Fox – who was seventh in the state in points last season – and Pilgrim juniors Casey McCormick and Juliana Mollo.
The second line should also provide a big punch.
Toll Gate senior captain Claudia Collins will team up with Toll Gate freshman Abby Ellis, to give the Lady Titans a potentially lethal scoring duo.
“With Claudia Collins paring up with Abby Ellis, they both have a lot of speed,” Tibbetts said. “I think they’re going to be a good one-two punch.”
The third player on that line has been Bay View transfer Madison Armstrong, who is now a junior at Toll Gate. She, however, won’t be able to play until after the team’s eighth game of the season, which comes on Jan. 6
Toll Gate freshman Jamie Hopgood, who didn’t play youth hockey last year but played prior to that, could also be a factor.
“I think we really have the ability to put some pucks in the net this year,” Tibbetts said. “Much more than last year.”
The Lady Titans should also be strong on defense.
The top pairing will be Toll Gate senior captain Jamie Claeson alongside fellow Toll Gate senior Jacqueline Lyman.
Behind them is assistant captain Emma Hindinger, a senior from Vets, and Vets freshman Savannah Hersey.
The third pairing will likely be Vets junior Hannah McGuirl and Toll Gate sophomore Jaime Given.
“We have some good freshmen players that came in,” Tibbetts said. “Some really talented players. And the other kids improved.”
The goaltending duties are somewhat up in the air, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Lady Titans currently have three girls vying for the job, including last year’s starter, Pilgrim junior Kayleen Murphy.
Toll Gate sophomore Arielle Frank is also in the mix, as she was the back up last year and has improved after spending time at various goalie clinics over the summer.
The third player in the running is Toll Gate freshman Erin Vermilye, who played growing up and actually has the most experience of the three, despite being the youngest.
“We have a nice mix there,” Tibbetts said. “They all bring a little something to the stage. They’re all going to get a chance to prove themselves.”
There are other players on the team that Tibbetts thinks could have an impact on the game, as he hopes to consistently send four lines to the ice.
Just about everybody has shown improvement, and Tibbetts expects to be more comfortable with using four lines based on how far along everyone already is.
“Even though we have a lot of new players, we’re kind of starting off where we left off last year,” Tibbetts said. “Things like forechecking, power play, how to play defensive zone coverage. It just has to be reviewed, rather then implemented.”
Understandably, then, expectations are high.
“Other teams are telling me we’re the team to beat in the second division,” Tibbetts said. “That depends. Some teams lost a lot of good players. Some teams have some freshmen that are going to help, some don’t. You never know how it’s going to mix out, but we should have a good season.”
The regular season begins on Dec. 2, when Warwick will host North Smithfield at Thayer Arena.
Then, the Lady Titans will set out to try to accomplish as much as they can, no matter where that puts them in the postseason. If all goes well, it could end up being a season to remember.
“I would say the kids would love to win a championship, the first one for the program,” Tibbetts said. “I know it’s on their mind.”