For the second time in the last three seasons, the WMRP ice hockey team is one of the last clubs standing in the state tournament.
The No. 9-seeded Eagles (17-5) set up a Division III semifinal showdown with No. 4 Branford (16-3-3) at 7:30 tonight at Yale’s Ingalls Rink.
Following a first-round win over No. 8 seed E.O. Smith and an upset victory over No. 1 Watertown/Pomperaug, the Eagles are once again one step away from a state title game appearance - two years removed from a 1-0 loss to Hall-Southington in the Division II state semis.
“The motivation is to keep it rolling,” WMRP coach Dennis Tulimieri said. “We’ve emerged over the last three or four years to be a real quality team. We moved up to Division II this year, and we just want to keep the tradition rolling and make sure we’re playing quality hockey to attract both fans and players.”
After a 3-16-1 season in 2013, the Wethersfield hockey program combined with Middletown and Rocky Hill, but not much success followed - the Eagles went 9-47-2. In 2017, Plainville joined the co-op, and the Eagles went 19-4, bowing out to Hall-Southington as the No. 2 seed.
Last season, the Eagles went 13-8-1, grabbing the No. 7 seed in Division III and suffering another one-goal defeat, this time in the second round.
These last three seasons of success has Tulimieri hoping the club is now on the rise at the D2 level.
“I hope so,” Tulimieri said of whether or not WMRP is becoming a top-tier program. “We need a few more years of doing it before you can say we’re a repeat competitive team. But, yes, that’s the objective, and the objective of these kids is to keep the tradition going and improve upon last year.”
Postseason-wise, the Eagles have improved from last season, and now they must deal with a dynamic Branford offense.
“They are a very well-rounded team,” Tulimieri said of the Hornets. “They play a very disciplined board-checking system. They’re effective offensively, particularly on finding their opportunities on breakaways, and they’re very solid in the defensive zone. They’re just a very good overall team. We have to shoot early and often to try and get some stuff going in front of the net. That’s what everybody wants to do - get it to the net and go to the net. There are no real secrets when you have a solid team like that. The game is kind of simplified.”
The Eagles are backed by a strong defensive game that has allowed less than two goals per game, which Tulimieri says “speaks for itself.” And leading the Eagles’ offense will be Aaron Cholewa, Ben Mroczka and Trevor Piecewicz.
Cholewa is one of WMRP’s top points leaders, Mroczka is a top goal scorer, and Piecewicz is one of the Eagles’ leaders in assists. They have helped lead the squad to 28 combined goals in the last eight games, including three five-goal outputs, during a 7-1 stretch that has the Eagles rolling at the right time.
“Offensively I think we’ve picked it up over last half dozen games or so,” Tulimieri said. “I think we’ve become an offensive threat, and that’s a big reason for the success in the first two CIAC games.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org