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Facing its demise, tiny Savio fights on

Hockey team's spirit lifts school

Savio Prep's William "Billy" Langdon hugged coach Joe Ciccarello in the locker room after they beat Concord-Carlisle High School 5-4 in overtime Thursday. (MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

CHELMSFORD -- If fated to end here, in a chilly rink on a March weeknight with a couple of hundred friends and family members in the stands, then Savio Prep hockey was going down fighting. Nothing less was expected of Team Slap Shot, nicknamed for the 1977 movie about a motley crew of icemen who seldom met a brawl they didn't start.

The 2007 team faced more than a season-ending loss, though. Savio, a tiny schoolboy-hockey powerhouse and perennial contender for the state Division 3 title, was confronting the likelihood that this would be the school's final hockey game, ever. Barring what many say would have to be a miracle, the school will not reopen next year.

But miracles sometimes happen, as the game's Disney-movie finish soon demonstrated. Trailing 4-1 with nine minutes left in their Thursday night playoff contest against Concord-Carlisle High School , the Spartans scored on a nifty shorthanded goal. Four minutes later, they netted another goal to make it 4-3, then scored again with 24.5 seconds remaining.

Tie game. Sudden-death overtime. No margin for error? No problem.

Twenty-one seconds into OT, forward Michael Woods fired home a loose puck, touching off a wild celebration and ensuring Savio would live to fight another day. In the locker room afterward, Coach Joe Ciccarello dropped the tough-guy stance he'd adopted earlier in the week after Savio's opening-round playoff victory.

"For the first time all year, your character was on the line," Ciccarello bellowed over the hubbub. "No one quit. All game long, I heard we were losing. People in the stands were yelling, 'Your school's closing!' And no one quit.

"What's Savio doing now?" he asked. To which the players replied in unison: "Moving on."

Moving on.

To a hockey team gunning for a state championship after a stellar 18-1-1 regular-season record, the phrase has become a rallying cry. Yet the words carry even more poignant meaning for a program born in the hockey-mad 1970s and a school that can only hope it will move on. A rally for the school Sunday drew hundreds of supporters. But unless a major benefactor emerges, this year will be Savio's last, school officials say.

"The coaches try not to put it in our heads," says Evan Yanovitch , 17, a junior defenseman from South Boston. "But it's there."

Junior defenseman Michael Lacey says the players don't talk much about the school's clouded future. "When we get on the ice, we're all business," says Lacey, "But when we get tired in practice, it gives us an extra push to work hard. We're all thinking, what if we lose? It's over."

Ciccarello acknowledged as much before a practice session in East Boston a week ago, saying his concern was for the underclassmen and coaching staff, all of whom are ex-Savio players, who want to continue with hockey but don't know how or where.

"None of us has made plans for next year," said Ciccarello, 38, a 1987 Savio grad who teaches business and math at Revere High. "The great thing is, these kids come from all over. South Boston, Charlestown, East Boston. Notoriously those are separate islands, so to get kids from those communities to mix is unusual.

"If this is going to be the last hockey team in Savio history, I want to make sure we end it with honor."

History of struggle
Founded in 1958 by the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic order, St. Dominic Savio Preparatory High School , as the school is now called, has been threatened with closing before. But it has never come this close. In 1993, a group of trustees took over the school from the Salesians, keeping it open until now through years of dwindling enrollment (this year's student body numbers 165, down from 400 three years ago), deteriorating facilities, and financial strain.

Meanwhile, Savio has continued to draw students from blue-collar neighborhoods not always known for nurturing warm cross-border friendships. Nobody gets recruited to play hockey at Savio, and team members must pay for ice time and equipment themselves. Notwithstanding those handicaps, the spunky Spartans are headed toward their fifth-straight division title game and a shot at winning a state championship on March 18 at the TD Banknorth Garden.

"Nothing affects these kids," marvels Albert Tecci , father of freshman goalie Salvatore Tecci , who arrived at Savio by way of Las Vegas, Nevada, not exactly a hockey hotbed. "They don't care, but in a good way. They could be pond skating in Southie."

That's the feel-good part. The harder truth is that with no guarantee of enrolling new students next fall, school officials are preparing for the worst.

Headmaster Anders Peterson , in his first year at Savio, notes with pride "the resilience of our students, who continue to do volunteer work, to excel academically, to make plans for college. And we're proud of our winter sports teams, too, who've won two league titles." Asked whether the school's plight has been a motivational tool for students and athletes alike, Peterson says it has.

Paul Abbott , Savio '74, whose son Shaun plays for the hockey team, recalls the day when students voted on which sport the school should add, football or hockey.

"It was 1970, the Bobby Orr era in Boston, so we chose hockey. And look at the tradition that's been built," says Abbott. "We're on the edge now, though. We need a miracle."

'My last shot'
With the shadow of finality hovering over the team, players have responded in various ways, from savoring the team's success to brooding about what happens next year and beyond.

In Lacey's case, the season has brought the joy of watching his 1-year-old son, Cullen, become the team's "good-luck charm."

"I didn't take school too seriously before," says Lacey, "but I'm on the honor roll this year. So I guess it's forced me to grow up."

Next year is uncertain, admits Lacey, who wants to play at least one more year of hockey. "It all depends if the school stays open. I haven't started looking yet."

Tecci, the star freshman goaltender, is already applying to other prep schools. Sophomore Matthew Armata of Eastie, whose dad helps coach the team, says he's "just hoping the school stays open" and waiting to see what his options are. So is freshman Chris Finn of Winthrop, who'll probably transfer to Pope John XXIII High School in Everett if Savio closes.

Senior defenseman and team captain William Langan of Charlestown doesn't worry about Savio's fate the way most underclassmen do. He plans to attend college next year, although it's unlikely he'll continue his hockey career.

"This is my last shot," says Langan, a three-sport athlete at Savio.

Savio plays Monday night in the Division 3 finals against Weston High. Win or lose, the Spartans will be moving on.

It's been that kind of season.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of an editing error, the headline on the continuation of a Page One story in yesterday's Globe on St. Dominic Savio Preparatory High School had the wrong location for the school in some editions of the Globe. The school is in East Boston.)

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