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Defense shines outside spotlight's glare

Coaches sing praises of top blue liners

Chris Mastropietro will be taking aim from the blue line for Revere High again this winter. Chris Mastropietro will be taking aim from the blue line for Revere High again this winter. (Lisa Poole for the Boston Globe)
By Matt Porter
Globe Correspondent / December 18, 2008
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High school hockey coaches echo the same thought, essentially: Their seasons hinge on the level of expertise displayed by the player with the mask and big pads.

But while goaltending is crucial to success at any level, young players often dream of scoring goals and making the highlight reels.

That leaves a third part of the game, just as important, woefully underappreciated and in higher demand than offense and goaltending combined.

A good blue liner is hard to find.

"You look at the good teams, and more often than not, there's the anchor, there's the guy who will log 28 or 32 or 45 minutes" a game, said Framingham High boys' coach Paul Spear.

It takes liberal quantities of patience, toughness, and skill to play defense well. And from the youth ranks to the pros, all coaches want a rock on the back line.

"It gets harder and harder every year to find," said the hockey coach at Xaverian Brothers High, Dave Spinale. "The D gets leaner, it seems."

"Defense always wins," said Spear, entering his ninth year with the Flyers. "Look at Needham last year. They won a state title with one of the best defensemen I've seen around here in quite a while."

Spear was referring to Rockets blue liner Will Rayner, now playing hockey at the college-prep South Kent School in Connecticut. Rayner could play the body and move the puck like few others.

"With an anchor like that, you can do quite a lot," said Spear.

With junior clubs and prep schools always hunting for a good defenseman, even top high schools like Catholic Memorial have to work hard to keep their best players.

"We develop our kids," said CM coach Bill Hanson. "All our practices start from defense on out. All our drills are predicated on how the defense works . . . with the D being in position, with their feet constantly moving and handling the puck."

Area coaches stress that the glory of past goal-scoring fades quickly when skaters try to jump to the next level without the ability to defend all over the ice.

"Defense hasn't been as addressed as much at younger levels, so getting a higher-end defenseman is harder," said Spinale. "I think that's what colleges want now. The first question is, 'How are they doing in school?' The second is, 'How do they play in all three zones?' "

Hard to find? Well, maybe not.

A Globe Super-Teamer last winter as a junior, Malden Catholic's Greg Crovo was the second-best blue liner in the state behind Catholic Memorial's Peter Starrett, who pulled off the rare feat of jumping from high school straight to a top Division 1 collegiate program at Harvard.

Crovo will lead the Lancers defense in aiming for a return to the Super 8 final. "He's the complete package," a rival coach says of the 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior.

Catholic Memorial never has a problem trotting out five or six talented defensemen, and this year is no different. Norfolk resident Garrett Noonan, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior, will pick up Starrett's workload for the Knights.

"It'll all start with Garrett," said Hanson, who will also count on junior Shane Dorsey (a transfer from Berkshire School), senior Michael Brandt, and 6-foot-6, 215-pound Phil Rossi to dish the puck to CM's high-flying forwards and protect new goalies Ryan Hubbard and Tommy Knox.

Xaverian is another Catholic Conference team blessed with talent, starting with senior captain Andrew White. "The things you can't teach, he has," said Spinale. Returning regulars Matt Glennon, Tyler Gordon, and Chris Kennedy will try to get the Hawks back to the Super 8.

Elsewhere in the conference, St. John's Prep captains Nick Riccio and Eddie Estey have drawn raves from opposing coaches, and BC High's Eddie Nolan is a player to watch.

Trinity Catholic's Tim Foley returns for his senior season after leading the Catholic Central League in scoring (9 goals, 33 assists, 42 points).

In Reading, a special class of seniors stuck around to help the Rockets hoist the first state title by a public school in 30 years. But five horses have graduated, leaving senior Tyler Silvey as the only blue liner with experience.

With Andrew Fulford and Jeremy Fanning (graduation) and senior Brett Biondo (transfer to Malden Catholic) gone, Gloucester's offense takes a hit. Seniors Paul Russo and Nick DeCoste must anchor the Fishermen's back line while young players find the scoring touch.

Peabody's most pivotal player is forward Elijah Cohen, but fellow senior captain Chris Lavoie is just as important for the powerful Tanners. With hulking Tim Wilkinson out for now with a wrist injury, Danvers' defense takes a hit, and it's up to junior Tim Conway and Dylan Carr to help fill the void. Masconomet Regional senior Keaton Cashin should be one of the area's top players, as will Revere's Chris Mastropietro, who pumped in more than 20 goals from the blue line last season.

"The game starts with defense," said Andover coach Mario Martinello. "If you can play well in your zone, the offense usually takes care of itself."

Martinello's best defenseman, senior captain Riki Ratelle, will keep the Golden Warriors' end clean and spark the transition game.

"It seems like the puck is always on his stick," said Martinello of Ratelle. "He controls the game in a quiet manner, but he's not afraid to lay the body on someone. He's always in the right spot. He never loses the one-on-one battles. And when he goes in the corner, you can bet money he's coming out with the puck."

Westford Academy's Tim Haroules was a key cog in the Grey Ghosts' Super 8 run last season.

South of Boston, Hingham lost its three largest sources of offense, so coach Tony Messina is counting on his defense to carry the Harbormen back to the Super 8. Senior tri-captain Ryan Driscoll and juniors Conor Coveney, Jake Quinn, and Andrew Sypek will heed Messina's philosophy, which, at least for now, is to keep things simple.

Pembroke coach Mark Duffy shapes his game plan around two juniors, Jared Weidemann and Joe DiPietro. Both are just 16, but they'll be counted on to drive the Titans.

Easton's Oliver Ames High School is excited about the return of junior Brian Lucey, who missed all but six games over his first two seasons due to injuries.

"He's a consummate defenseman's defenseman," said coach Bob Gallagher, who will pair Lucey with 6-foot-6 senior captain Mike O'Shea to give the Tigers a top combo in the Hockomock.

Brockton senior Matt Sliney has been the Boxers' top blue liner for two seasons, Norwell's Josh Adams hits hard with his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame, and Marshfield's Pat Lema will get a chance to lead a young Rams' back line.

Waltham High suffered big losses from last year's Super 8 crew, so coach John Maguire will entrust the protection of the Hawks' net to senior captain Dan Murphy, bound for the Marines after graduation.

Changing lines

Several new faces can be found behind the benches this year. Among the new hires, Acton-Boxborough Regional High welcomes former Natick head coach Bob Lavin. . . . At Chelmsford, former Bedford coach Mike McGrath takes the reins . . . John Coughlin returns to his alma mater, Lexington, after a stint at Souhegan (N.H.) High.

Game of the week

Catholic Memorial and the Delbarton School face off at Boston University's Walter Brown Arena at 2 p.m. Saturday.

CM coach Bill Hanson has lined up another tough early season test in the Green Wave, last year's New Jersey state champions.

Matt Porter can be reached at heymattporter@gmail.com

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