Bucks Forge Season to Remember

Year in Review: Hockey Team Proved A Memorable Force


Courtesy Photo

The Bucks celebrate a conference championship.

Connor McCaughey, Staff Writer

This was especially so considering the Bucks lost some of their key pieces to graduation – such as Bryan Roy and Sam Walikonis, who both provided scoring depth, and Ethan Homski, who was a lockdown defender. 

However, as soon as this year’s players came together in September for the fall season with the Northeast Youth Hockey Association, the group knew that this year’s high school team could be strong. Coach John Hodgson recognized the importance of the team coming together during the fall: “I think it has a huge impact. The team comes in with some camaraderie and with a level of fitness that makes it easier to step it up one more notch for the pace of the high school games. 

“I think it is also good for players to have the different experiences with coaches that they have when they play in the fall. As a high school coach, I am not allowed to coach my players outside of the season. I think this is good. They play the game and get their work in, but things don’t get stale mid-season when the coaching changes.” The fall Bucks team finished with a record of 13-0-1, proving they were ready to go for the high school regular season. 

At the beginning of this campaign, the Bucks elected Conor O’Brien and Cam Sterling as captains as well as Cole Schoen and Zack Stoltenberg as alternate captains. All four of these players were crucial to the success of this year’s team, but, of course, there has also been help from other seniors as well.

The Bucks could not have asked for a better start to the 2021-22 season. We started 5-0, outscoring our opponents 25-9. This was not an easy feat to accomplish by any means, and Coach Hodgson knows that all too well: “Early in the season, when the Covid wave was in full force, we always seemed to have a couple of guys out. It was hard to gain consistency.” The Bucks would face their biggest challenge to date when the Covid-19 bug sidelined our one and only goalie, Dan Polgun. So, Cam Sterling being the captain that he is, stepped up and played two games in net. Although the Bucks lost both of these games, Sterling stood on his head in net and kept the Bucks in those games, showing the team’s ability to compensate and make sacrifices in times of adversity. 

So despite two hard-fought losses to Newington and Woodstock Academy, things started to fall into place for the Bucks as they finished the regular season with a record of 17-3-1. There were some awesome games along the way, including an exciting battle with the eventual Division 3 Champion Newington Nor’Easters, which the Bucks won in the dying minutes of regulation. Another notable win came on February 2nd, when the Bucks went into a hostile environment at Avon Old Farms and took down the Division 2 powerhouse Farmington Valley Co-Op. 

It’s fair to say that the highlight of this season was the CCC South Tournament, which was played right here in Storrs. After a couple years without this event, the Bucks were back as the team and skated onto the ice in front of a sold-out student section. The Bucks defeated the Conard Chieftains 3-1 in the semifinal game, which included goals scored by E.O. Smith’s Conor O’Brien and Cole Schoen. This win set up a championship matchup with the Enfield Eagles, who upset Newington in their respective semifinal game. The Bucks struck first before Enfield knotted it up in the third period.  It was back and forth through the final stretch until Tolland’s Zack Stoltenberg broke the tie with just minutes left on the clock, lifting the Bucks to their second CCC South Championship in program history and first since 2019. 

The Bucks then entered the Division III state tournament as the one seed, the first time doing so since their 2015 championship season. Needless to say, expectations could not have been any higher. For us, it was championship or bust. The Bucks welcomed the 16-seeded Housatonic Mountaineers to Mark Edward Freitas Ice Forum on a rainy March night for the first round. It was easy to get ahead of ourselves knowing that we were the heavy favorites entering the game, not to mention we were coming off the conference championship that had occurred just three days before. Still, we knew we had work to do. Tolland’s Quentin Wry started the scoring in front of another sellout crowd, and the Bucks never looked back, winning the game 7-2 to advance in the state tournament for the first time since 2016. 

A goal is celebrated by players and fans alike. (Courtesy Photo)

The state quarterfinal matchup seemed inevitable. The Bucks would take on the nine-seeded Conard Chieftains for the fourth time in the season and the third time in a span of just 15 days. This time however, the game would be played at a neutral site (Trinity College) with everything on the line. The Bucks had dominated the Chieftains all season, outscoring them 10-1 through three games. Despite once again being the heavy favorites, this would prove to be a challenging test. From the first puck drop, both teams were playing fast, playoff-paced hockey. The scoring would not open up until the second period when Quentin Wry put one in assisted by Cam Sterling and Patrick Brennan. The game went on, and the clock continued to tick. It was beginning to look like the Bucks would advance to the state semifinals for only the third time in program history until the worst happened; the Chieftains tied the game with just a minute left thanks to a bizarre deflection off the boards. This game would be decided by sudden death. The mood in the Bucks’ locker room heading into overtime was not good. Allowing the game-tying goal that late really shook the team. Overtime would not last long as the Chieftains potted the winner just three minutes in to end the Bucks season. Stunned is the right word. Pretty much everyone from Bucks Nation felt the shock of a three-loss team losing to the nine-seed in the second round. And yet, that’s the beauty of hockey. Any team can win on any given night. Coach Hodgson put it best: “At the end of the season, we had the challenge of playing Conard for the fourth time in one season, and the third time in 15 days. While we were a bit deeper and more experienced, they had an excellent goalie and a solid, hard-working team.  This allowed them to stay in games.  And, if you play a team like that a number of times, well, you’re not going to beat them every time!”  

While a shocking end to the 2021-22 season was disappointing, the Bucks are already looking forward to next season. There are a lot of gaps to fill after losing 11 players, but next year’s seniors are up to the challenge; Luke Ruchalski, Connor McCaughey, Carter Pelletier, Damian Till, and Braiden George (Tolland) are all returning for their senior campaign.

 “With four defensemen and our goalie graduating, we will have to work hard as a team defensively to make up for whatever individual talent we are losing this year, ” coach Hodgson said. “But, turning the page to a new team is part of what makes high school sports, and coaching them, exciting.  We have some talented and energetic younger guys coming in.  There will be some work to do – on their part and mine –  to get them to where they need to be for success in high school hockey, but if they are eager and work hard, who knows how good we can be!” 

The Bucks certainly have their work cut out for them next year if they want to make it to Quinnipiac, but they are ready to embrace that challenge and face all obstacles during the 2022-23 season!