SHREWSBURY, Mass. -- It was right around the midway point of last year's hockey season when people began taking notice of Shrewsbury High's upstart team.
The Colonials were being reminded often on how good it looked and how great they could be. But it wasn't too long after when the Colonials, themselves, started buying into the hype — perhaps a bit too much.
You could make a case that Shrewsbury's top-scoring line of a year ago was as good as any in the state; it was certainly best in Central Mass. They were a multi-talented group with an uncanny ability of moving the puck around on a dime inside an opponent's defensive zone. The trio worked so beautifully together that they combined for an eye-catching 125 points.
The belief was that Shrewsbury had enough talent to whisk past its competitors in district play and would finish it off with a MIAA state championship trophy in tow.
It didn’t go quite according to script.
In last February's Division 3 Central Mass. semifinal played at Fitchburg's Wallace Civic Center, the favored Colonials endured a gut-wrenching 2-1 overtime loss to Wachusett Regional. Suddenly, in the span of a millisecond, all of the talk, predictions and championship dreams had vanished.
Even today, almost a year later, the loss continues to gnaw at them. But instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the Colonials are using it as motivation.
Just a month into this season and it appears as though the motivation is working.
The Colonials, ranked No. 24 in ESPN Boston’s MIAA Top 25 poll, have sprinted out of the starting block with reckless abandon. Following Monday night's win over Hudson, Shrewsbury presently sits at 8-0. They are averaging over seven goals per game and have yet to be seriously tested. For this team, which last won a state championship in 2009, it has an agenda to meet and it won't conclude until they are the last ones standing come March inside TD Garden.
"That loss to Wachusett last year is what is driving us this year," said junior forward and leading scorer Dan Quinlivan (11 goals, 6 assists), who is paired with twin brother Jack and junior Trevor Shea to form one of Shrewsbury's four solid lines. "You never want to go out that way, especially in overtime like we did. It was a lesson learned."
Last year, the Quinlivans were teamed with first-line center Dave Belbin in forming one of region’s most formidable trios. The chemistry between them, not to mention their speed, puck-handling accuracy and precision-like passing skills were crisp and fluent.
This season, third-year head coach Steve Turnblom made a surprise move when he decided to tweak his lines a bit in an attempt to get more scoring production from other team members. Belbin now anchors a line with fellow senior Derek Dell'Olio and sophomore Adam Twitchell.
"Moving guys around has helped us a lot," sophomore defenseman Matt Dillon said. "Last year Dave, Jack and Dan were putting up most of the points. This year we have Dave's line and then we have Jack and Dan's line. Our third and fourth lines are contributing as well. The depth we have in all four of our lines has helped out quite a bit."
Dan Quinlivan said, "Last year the better programs had players who could shut our first line down at times. This year we have goal scorers on every line."
With each shift, Shrewsbury appears to be playing with a purpose. Its tempo is fast and furious the entire 45 minutes. Its hybrid offensive style has left a few opponents scrambling for the bench in an effort to catch their breath.
"Our speed is a factor no doubt," said Belbin, who netted 22 goals and added 20 assists a year ago. "But at the same time we knew we needed to be more-sound defensively. I think that is where we have stepped it up this year (having allowed just 12 goals). Last year the focus was on scoring points. This year, there is more attention being paid to keeping teams off the boards, create some havoc in our defensive zone and finish off our checks. The points will come off of that."
With upcoming games against such powers as St. John's (Shrewsbury), Wachusett, Groton-Dunstable and Longmeadow, the Colonials realize they have the firepower to win a state title. But the Colonials can also expect to see the best from every opponent they face. No matter the record.
"We know we are going to get everyone's A-gamem which I think is good because our guys will be ready for it," Turnblom said. "However, there is that old cliché that anyone can beat anyone. We certainly understand that. How we get better from game to game is the key for us. It's all about the little things you need to do to get better as a team. Going out and slapping teams around, but being sloppy in doing it, does us no good.
“Eventually that will come back to bite you as we know, especially when you are in a big game against a Wachusett, or St. John's, or during the playoffs. We still need to tighten things up at both ends of the ice and keep our minds focused in every game that we play. It is so important for all of us to know exactly what each one is doing out there."
Perhaps, most importantly, there is no trace of selfishness to be found in Shrewsbury’s game. To a player, all have a particular role and they execute.
"Come playoff time everyone should understand their roles here," said winger turned center Jack Quinlivan, who paced Shrewsbury with 25 goals last season. "Everyone will get their shot at some point, you just don't know when. But when that opportunity does come you have to be ready for it."
An area that plagued the Colonials a year ago was an inconsistency in goal.
As productive as Shrewsbury's offense was, its goaltenders were allowing nearly as much at the other end of the ice. It was an issue Turnblom knew he needed to address once the season came to an end. This year, he has three goaltenders, all of whom, he says are capable of stoning the opposition.
At present, seniors Will Shipman and Matt Andrews are the front-runners with sophomore Shane Gorrie not far behind. Combined, the team’s goals against average sits below 2.00.
Andrews came on board this year after transferring from nearby St. John's of Shrewsbury. Dropping down from a Division 1 level program to Division 3 did raise a few eyebrows but Andrews stands by his decision.
"I've known most of the guys on this team for a very long time," Andrews said. "This was something I really wanted to do. I hang out with most of these guys all the time. It wasn't really a sports thing for me but more about being with my friends. It's a joy playing with all of them again and being apart of this team."
Turnblom felt he also needed to shore up his team's defensive play. New addition Sean Hallice, who spent the last couple of seasons playing juniors before opting out and joining Shrewsbury this season, has been nothing short of spectacular. Not only can the senior shadow an opposing club's top offensive threat, but has also proven to be a valuable commodity offensively, registering six goals and seven assists. He, along with Dillon, Cole Vincequere and Cole Ambach have given the Colonials' defense some much-needed depth. In addition, their ability to transition the puck swiftly up ice to the forwards has been well-received.
"Between our offense and defense it gives you a good feeling of confidence in all of our lines," Hallice said. "You quickly realize that if I screw up or someone else screws up we all have each other's backs."
Said Jack Quinlivan, "The defense has been very good at getting the puck up to forwards quickly. We constantly try to suck the life out of teams with our speed. If teams can't stay with us they eventually wear down."
There are some pessimists who are quick to point out that the majority of Shrewsbury's schedule offers little challenge. Even though the Colonials traditionally play in the most-competitive Division 3 conference (the Quinn) in Central Mass., there are some weaknesses this year. Hudson, Marlborough and Auburn, all of whom have enjoyed success in the past, are in rebuilding modes and not expected to contend this year. Therefore, Shrewsbury will rely heavily on its upcoming confrontations against conference foe Wachusett (twice), St. John's, Groton-Dunstable and Longmeadow to prepare them for what lies ahead.
"You cannot take anyone lightly no matter who we play," Dillon said. "You have to treat every team the same and be ready to play every game."
Wachusett has been a thorn in the Colonials' sides the past few seasons. The Mountaineers, who fell to eventual state champ Westfield in last year's state semifinal, have not lost to Shrewsbury in three years. They look to keep that trend going when the two clubs square off next Saturday.
"We realize it will be a difficult task to try and stop a team that is averaging nearly eight goals a game," Wachusett coach Matt Lane said. "They have something like 10 different players who have already scored multiple goals. We know it'll take a strong defensive effort and outstanding goaltending on our part to stay in the game with them."
Should the Colonials stumble a bit during the season, it still appears likely they will have sewn up a playoff spot by month's end. When this does occur, don't expect them to rest on their laurels.
The team's first priority is to be the No. 1 seed in next month's Central Mass. tournament and begin, what they hope, is a solid postseason run that will carry them to Boston this time around.
"We know we have a good team," Ambach said. "But we can't go out there thinking we are best team because we all know what happened last year. We are always looking for ways to improve. We just need to keep things on an even keel throughout the entire season and not get too far ahead of ourselves."