January 17, 2013

Prep Journal: Special seasons abound in Founders League

By Mike Zhe

Evan Smith’s strike lifted the Crimson Knights past Choate Monday. (Dave Arnold Photography)

When Salisbury’s Evan Smith scored with 11 seconds left in overtime to beat Choate Monday, it didn’t just cap an exciting mid-winter game.

It also reminded us how tight and intriguing things are in the Founders League this year.

As the prep season hits its midpoint, no fewer than seven Founders League teams are nestled in New England Hockey Journal’s top 20 power rankings. When two square off head-to-head, like they did Monday, the result is often something special.

“Salisbury’s a very good team,” said Choate coach Pat Dennehy. “It’s always tough playing there. (Coach) Andrew Will does a great job. I don’t think we were really ready to compete in the first two periods. I think we were in awe of who they were.”

Goalie Sam Tucker, a Yale commit, kept Choate in the game as it struggled to find its legs early on. Neither team could cash in until Salisbury defenseman Will Toffey banged in his own rebound after a missed clearing attempt midway through the second period.

Choate’s best period was the third. It tied the game with a goal by co-captain Luke May on a 5-on-3, and nearly took a late lead when sophomore Charley Borek’s scoring bid on a 2-on-1 was denied.

That sent the teams to overtime and Smith’s late game-winner, off a set-up from Neil Robinson on a 2-on-1.

Salisbury (9-3-1) said good-bye to 14 players who helped it enter last year’s postseason as the No. 1-ranked team in New England, but brought back an excellent corps of defensemen. With perennial power Avon Old Farms (8-3-2); Kent (7-3-2), whose recent track record has been almost as good as anybody’s; and experienced Westminster (9-2-1), it was again expected to contend for a spot in the New England elite tournament.

But it’s been some of last year’s also-rans who’ve made the Founders League even deeper. Loomis-Chaffee, 2-23 last year, has gotten a nice influx of Connecticut Wolfpack talent and is 8-4. Taft, Trinity-Pawling and Hotchkiss have also been tough outs.

“Everyone’s pretty good, more so this year,” said Dennehy. “Teams like Trinity-Pawling and Loomis, who’ve been down lately, are very competitive this year. That’s made the league stronger from top to bottom.”

Choate (8-4-2), though young, has gotten leadership from captains May and Mickey Foley, and strong seasons from older players like Tucker, defenseman Max Daigle and forward Owen Powers. All in all, it sets up for a fun second half in the league, with very few nights off.

“It makes for a competitive and interesting season, and that’s how you get better,” said Dennehy.

Game of the Week

Westminster at Avon Old Farms, Monday

Two Founders League heavyweights square off for the first time this season. They’ll play again on Jan. 30.

NEHJ New England Power Rankings

To read Mike Zhe's analysis of each team in the top 20, head to our prep school power rankings page.

1. Kimball Union (16-1)
2. Gunnery (14-2-2)
3. Berkshire School (14-2)
4. Belmont Hill (12-2-2)
5. Cushing Academy (13-3-1)

6. Westminster (9-2-1)
7. Avon Old Farms (8-3-2)
8. Salisbury School (9-3-1)
9. Kent School (7-3-2)
10. Dexter School (9-2-3)

11. St. Sebastian’s (10-4)
12. Brooks School (8-1-3)
13. Phillips Exeter (7-3-3)
14. Choate (8-4-2)
15. Noble and Greenough (7-4-1)

16. Kents Hill School (11-4-1)
17. Canterbury (8-4-3)
18. Rivers School (9-4-1)
19. Loomis-Chaffee (8-4)
20. Buckingham, Browne & Nichols (9-5-1)

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeZhe603.