LOWELL, Mass. -- Entering the season, everyone knew that Austin Prep a serious collection of talent. The knock against the Cougars was that they were very young, and that their defense might not be up to par with its offense.
As the winter progressed, those blueliners have vastly improved and grown into their roles, and because of how that unit performed in the postseason, the statement "AP is maybe a year or two away" no longer applies.
Led by senior Zach Fuller and junior Andrew Cross, the Cougars defense turned in perhaps its finest performance of the season and were a key factor in Austin's 2-1 victory over St. John's Prep in the second Div. 1A semifinal at Tsongas Center Tuesday night.
"Our defense the second half of the season has really turned it up,' praised AP head coach Louis Finocchiaro. "Andrew Cross has been playing phenomenally all year. Zach Fuller over the second half of the season has really come up big for us a senior defenseman. J.J. Layton, Matty Morgan, Leachy [Brendan Leach] and Kevin Kiley... they're playing well on that back end and no one gave them any credit in the beginning of the season. They said we couldn't win hockey games because we weren't good defensively but you know what? They're proving some people wrong and doing a fabulous job."
Throughout the Super 8, most of the focus in Austin's victories has been on goalie Elijah Harris, and rightly so. Harris was nothing short of spectacular in the two victories over Reading, and it was assumed that for Austin to have a chance against the top-seeded Eagles, Harris would have to steal it.
Instead, the defense made his life easier. Harris made 27 saves in the game but he didn't have to be spectacular like he was against Reading thanks to his defense. They did a terrific job of limiting the Prep from home run chances, they cleared the puck out of the zone often and kept the shooting lanes free and clear for Harris to do his job behind them.
A key cog in the maturation of the Cougars defense has been Cross. The junior spent two years at Malden Catholic, who will be AP's opponent in the championship game, before transferring over to Austin. His steady presence on the ice and guiding voice in the locker room has been invaluable to the rest of the young Cougars and that group is playing its best at the right time.
"I know we're very young," Cross admitted after Wednesday's game. "They've learned a lot from Coach [Finocchiaro] and I've taught them a couple of things myself about the high school game. Coming from playing select hockey and coming up to high school, thats a huge difference. We've grown as the year's gone on and playing against better competition makes you better every day. The forwards we have coming down at us in practice one on one, it's tough so we have very talented guys to up against."
AP OFFENSE DOES ITS PART
Speaking of those talented forwards, they had to come through as well and the Cougars top line really shined on this stage. After a scoreless first period, the two teams looked to be headed toward another goose egg n the scoreboard in the second until, with just under six minutes remaining. Eric MacAdams delivered a perfect feed to Nolan Vesey (2 goals) for an open look that AP on the board first.
St. John's Prep answered in the third as Tyler Bird stuffed home a rebound at 6:46 and finally began to show signs of reminding everyone why they were the state's top-ranked squad for most of the season. With just 2:40 remaining, MacAdams was hauled down on a breakaway that gave the Cougars a power play, and they cashed in on a flukey bounce.
Bob Carpenter fired a shot from the right wing circle that was tipped by Cam Russo and the puck went up into the air toward the far post where Vesey was camped with St. John's senior captain Brent Murray. Vesey's stick went up at the same time as Murray's glove, and the puck went off the blue-liners hands and dropped down into the net to give Austin a 2-1 lead with 2:11 remaining.
"It was a power play and I ended up on my off side," explained Vesey. "The puck went back to Bobo Carpenter and he let a rip go. My linemate, Cam Russo, tipped it, kind of went up in the air and their defenseman's glove and my stick went up and I couldn't even tell you. I closed my eyes then I saw the puck go over the line. Thats all that matters."
The Eagles pulled goalie Billy Price (18 saves) with just over a minute remaining for the extra skater, but Harris came through with a pair of big saves in the closing seconds to finish it off.
"I thought we played a pretty good game," Eagles head coach Kristian Hanson said. "Did we play a great game? No, but I thought we played well enough to win. We've had difficulty all year capitalizing and tonight it came back to bite us. You can blame it on a number of different things but bottom line is we didn't finish and they scored one more goal than we did. It doesn't matter how it goes in, they all count the same."
For Austin Prep, there is no waiting for next year. Their time has come now.
"Obviously its great experience and for them it took a while to believe in themselves and to know how to win big games," Finocchiaro said. "It was a learning process for us and halfway through the season, we were like, 'We don't know if its going to come.' We thought it might not come this year and we may have to wait until next year because we were up and down, we were like a rollercoaster. But then our last four games of the season, we've played really well right through tonight. They got some confidence going, they believe in themselves.
"St. John's Prep is a tremendous hockey team. They've been the number one hockey team all year long and for us to beat them tonight is a huge accomplishment."
Sunday will hold extra special meaning to several Cougars, including Finocchiaro, who was a disciple of the late Chris Serino. Cross was a regular in the rotation during Malden Catholic's run to a second straight title a season ago. Now he stands as the top defenseman for Austin Prep and he knows a lot of eyes will be on him from now until Sunday.
"I'm looking forward to this game," Cross said with a smile. "I didn't think it was going to happen this way. It's going to be a dramatic game playing against my old teammates. I've known a bunch of them since I was probably about seven years old, I've been playing against them my whole life. We've just got to work hard at practice and go over the systems. We played them once already and we gave them a game. We didn't like the outcome (MC won, 4-3 in OT during the Chris Serino Holiday Tournament) the first time so we're going to be looking for some revenge."
And while MC has overcome its midseason struggles and once again looks like the team to beat, don;t think for a second that Austin Prep plans to lay down for them on the TD Garden ice.
"They won it the last two years," Vesey said almost defiantly. "There's not going to be a third time."