Entering Wednesday afternoon's SCC Division II Championship game, the Notre Dame-Fairfield/Milford co-op girls ice hockey team was eager to avenge two regular-season losses to the Branford/East Haven/North Branford co-op after meeting its preseason goal of advancing to the championship game.
Unfortunately for the Lancers, the team's third matchup did not end with a charming result.
The Hornets shut out Notre Dame/Milford 4-0 at Bennett Rink in West Haven in the season finale for both teams. The Lancers failed to generate much of an attack, and quickly fell behind despite a strong performance by senior goalie Brooke Bonetti, who stopped 44 shots.
"We gave 100 percent today, no doubt about it. We just couldn't get a shot on net to go in," Notre Dame assistant coach Jenn Schell said. "Branford certainly doesn't beat us in the heart category, but when it comes to having players who are strong and fast and know how to play the game, they have a few more of those than we do. You can't win, if you don't score."
The Lancers end the season with a final record of 6-13-2. Branford's final record is 8-9-1. Despite winning the conference's Div. II championship, the Hornets did not qualify for the Connecticut Girls Ice Hockey Tournament because they were not among Connecticut's top eight teams in overall winning percentage.
Branford controlled the puck for a majority of the game and had many scoring opportunities. Despite having Bonetti needing to stay sharp throughout, the Hornets only converted four times due to a number of agile saves by Bonetti.
After being held in check for most of the first period, Branford got on the board 10:39 in on an unassisted goal by Tina Paolillo on a Lancer' power play.
The second period followed the same script, with Notre Dame struggling to move the puck against the athletic Hornets and its defense making some clutch plays to keep the game close. Paolillo scored on a breakaway four minutes later to put Branford up 2-0.
Lexi Harney ended any hopes of a Notre Dame comeback late in the third period by scoring twice unassisted in the span of eight seconds. She made the score 3-0 with 4:21 remaining when she beat Bonetti over her left shoulder. Following the faceoff, Harney flipped the puck into the goal to make it 4-0.
"If we had scored in the first two periods, the momentum would have been totally different," Schell said. "When Harney scored those two goals, it took the wind out of our sails, and we just couldn't recover."
Hornets coach Lauren Wiggins said that her defense's strong back checking was the biggest factor in it shutting down the Lancers offense.
For Wiggins and Branford, winning the SCC Div. II title was an extremely rewarding accomplishment.
"Myself and some of the girls were in tears when that buzzer sounded," Wiggins said. "We only won one game the three previous seasons. For the program to go so far in that time is amazing, and these guys are going to be walking on cloud nine for a while."
Despite falling short of the title, Schell and Bonetti said this was definitely a successful season for the Lancers.
"By making it here, we reached the goal we set for ourselves entering the season," Schell said. "We won the games that were most important, and that's what I'm talking about when I mention heart. I loved coaching this team."
"Making it here was a huge accomplishment, no matter what," Bonetti said. "A lot of people didn't think we could, and we started the season off poorly."
Danny Atkinson is a freelance reporter
Branford/East Haven/North Branford 4, Notre Dame/Milford 0
BRANFORD 1 1 2--4
NOTRE DAME 0 0 0--0
Records: Branford/East Haven/North Branford 8-9-1; Notre Dame-Fairfield/Milford 6-13-2. Goals: B/EH/NB--Tina Paollilo 2, Lexi Harvey 2. Assist: B/EH/NB--Rachel Sicilano. Goalies: B/EH/NB--Whitney Morris (12 saves); NDF/M--Brooke Bonetti (44). Shots: B/EH/NB--48; NDF/M--12.