NEW HAVEN - The program was not down in the dumps. Thatâ€™s not an assertion Dennis Tulimieri would agree with. But the WMRP ice hockey teamâ€™s 33-year head coach was well aware the Eagles were not exactly playing up to their standards.
After capturing the programâ€™s second state championship in 2007, with an 8-12 regular-season record, the Wethersfield team limped through six straight losing seasons and no playoff berths.
That run included a 3-16-1 record in 2013 before a 5-15 record in 2014 was enough to secure a Division III postseason appearance.
And when Middletown and Rocky Hill joined forces with Wethersfield for a three-school co-op, things did not improve. In 2015 and 2016, WMR combined for a 6-32-2 record and did not qualify for the D-III tournament.
But things completely changed in 2017, when the Eagles exploded onto the scene out of nowhere with a terrific 19-4 record that resulted in a D-III semifinal appearance and a heartbreaking one-goal loss to Hall-Southington. That was the first year Plainville was inserted into the co-op.
WMRP followed with a 13-8-1 campaign that ended with another one-goal loss in the D-III state tournament, this time in the quarterfinals.
And on Tuesday night, WMRP was once again competing deep into the postseason, the ninth-seeded Eagles facing No. 4 Branford in a semifinal showdown in the Division II state tournament.
The Hornets took control with a 3-0 lead early in the second period and iced the game with three goals in the third for a 6-1 victory.
It was an unceremonious end for an Eagles team that finished 17-6, winning seven of its last eight heading into Tuesday by averaging 3.9 goals and allowing 1.1 goals per game across the seven wins - a run that included three five-goal games and five games of allowing one goal or less.
But Tulimieri could not help but feel proud of a team that won the CCC for the first time in program history and asserted itself as a potentially dangerous team in the future.
â€śOne of the goals that we had was to win the conference. Achieving that goal was special because the team has never done that before,â€ť Tulimieri said Tuesday. â€śI was proud of them and proud of what they did. Certainly, as we headed into the CIAC tournament, we wanted to give it our very best, and we did. We had a very competitive first game, and we beat the No. 1 seed in our second game. Just ran into a little bit of a storm here tonight.â€ť
Many of this yearâ€™s players were on the ice for the 2017 state semifinal run and the 2018 quarterfinals.
The Eagles lose eight seniors - Ben Mrozcka, Connor Rancourt, Branden Savard, Riordand Mertens, Connor McNamara, Devin Norton, goalie Jake Peckrul, Anthony Albano and Cole McNamara.
Those eight helped change the entire complexion of the program and finished off a season that could be a springboard for WMRP going forward.
â€śThatâ€™s exactly what we talked to the boys about to lift their spirits a little bit and have them take a look at it,â€ť Tulimieri said of the importance of a second semifinal appearance in three seasons. â€śThey set a precedent in our program now. Weâ€™re a Division II team, and we mean something in terms of our hockey expertise and our hockey skillset. They have brought us to this. A lot of the guys were on the team two years ago that are on the team now.
â€śBeing in the final four here two out of three years is pretty good. Not a lot of teams make it, and a lot of teams would, not appreciate the disappointment, but [enjoy] having the opportunity to have the success and the opportunity to have the disappointment we had here tonight. Iâ€™m proud of them.â€ť
Tulimieri - whose first season as Wethersfield head coach came in 1987, the year after the programâ€™s first state title - was also happy with his team being able to grow together throughout the season to become more cohesive.
â€śWhen youâ€™re trying to unite a team [it can get difficult],â€ť Tulimieri said. â€śYou try different line combinations, and you have to try [different] things to see what works. We did come to success. We ended up with a whole bunch of wins - 15-5 is not shabby. Those are the things we worked on and the kids overcame.â€ť
Some of the adversity the veteran coach praised his players for overcoming was injuries throughout the season, including one to key defenseman Kevin Avery, who suffered a broken clavicle and was not on the ice for the semifinal matchup.
â€śI think Iâ€™ll remember these kids for working hard and sticking together. We lost a couple of kids along the way and [had] some of injuries â€¦ Thatâ€™s always difficult,â€ť Tulimieri said. â€śAnd then you have four towns and put them together with new kids coming in. They have to [mesh]. Iâ€™ll tell you, thatâ€™s the wonderful thing about our sport, ice hockey, itâ€™s a common bond. Kids work with each other.
â€śAll teams are special, but these kids, what they ended up doing is sticking together through [everything]. We had some disappointments through the course of the year. We had some new guys come in, and we had to mesh them into the team. They just accepted everybody and worked real hard to put it back together.â€ť
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or