NORTH READING, Mass. -- Mike O’Brien has been a do-it-all type of player for North Reading all season long. He takes faceoffs, he plays offense, he plays defense and he plays on special teams. Without him, the Hornets might not be as successful as they have been this season.
And without Mike O’Brien, North Reading might be pondering its summer plans rather than looking ahead to next round of the tournament.
The junior scored three goals and added an assist while jumpstarting a 7-0, second-half run that helped the No. 2 Hornets take an 8-4 victory over No. 15 Austin Prep in a Division 3 first round matchup.
After the Cougars (13-7) held North Reading scoreless for the first half while taking a 2-0 lead, it was O’Brien who finally got them on the scoreboard. The Prep defense kept long poles attached to the hips of the Hornets high scoring duo of Cody Carbone and Erik Valenti, but O’Brien took advantage of the open space to whip a sidewinder shot from up top.
“We just isolated the person up top,” O’Brien explained. “Whoever drew the short stick, we just had them dodge, and we thought we could take advantage of them there.”
Austin responded with a goal from Brian Haas, but O’Brien came back just over a minute later with his second tally. That forced the Cougars to step out on him and freed up space for Valenti and Carbone to score the next two, the latter coming off a feed by O’Brien to Carbone in the middle for a quick snipe that put the Hornets ahead, 4-3.
“Mike is our unsung hero and no one realizes what he means to this team,” praised North Reading coach Chuck Campobasso. “He takes every faceoff, I can trust him on defense, I can trust him on offense and when he gets open on the crease he gets rid of it real quick. He’s just one of those guys that, when other teams are so worried about Cody and Erik, all of sudden Mike seems to pop open and he takes advantage of it.”
“We don’t have the success we’ve had without him. Even today, Austin put poles on Erik and Cody and we have one middie with a shorty, who is going to take advantage of it? For us, we’ve been lucky to have Mike do that.”
Billy Sexton scored twice, then Valenti and O’Brien added the last two in what was a 7-0 stretch that put the game out of reach.
Valenti finished with two goals and an assist for the Hornets, while Carbone, a 300-point scorer for his career, added a goal and an assist. While admitting that the Hornets need to put together a more consistent effort as they advance in the tournament, he also put his finger on what helped the offense find its groove.
“I think we had more cuts and people were moving more offensively,” Carbone described. “We were able to find the cutters and hit our shots. They were really worried about the crease guy so whenever they slid, we had a guy wide open.”
Given that these two teams battled to an overtime game during the regular season that ended in a 7-6 Hornets win, it was no surprise that the defenses took center stage early on.
Austin Prep standouts Scott Corcoran (Merrimack commit), Phil Capello (St. Mary’s of Maryland), Steve Jepeal, Will Leramer and Christian Rappa all contributed to several forced turnovers and numerous unforced errors while keeping North Reading off the scoreboard in the first half.
The Hornets were equally as strong in their own end behind Connor Murnane, Phil Bishop, Brian Smith and Chris Schipelliti. It was that group, along with goalie Brian Conway (13 saves) that held the fort until the offense got on track.
“They are a tremendous group of guys. I have the poles, I have the LSM, and I was rolling four different short-stick middies today,” Campobasso said. “I’m very lucky we have guys who understand what we’re trying to do. We’re not doing anything too complicated but they are good at it. They understand when to slide, when not to slide, when to cheat a little bit.”
“They are the backbone and a lot of people don’t think that. When they come here, they assume if they can outscore Cody and Erik, they’ll be okay but then they realize they can’t outscore them because our D is pretty good.”