PAWTUCKET --- United, they stand. Divided, who knows if the St. Raphael Academy hockey team and the Providence Country Day/Wheeler School co-op squad would have fallen from existence after last season?
For the Saints, they struggled mightily with numbers a season ago, as only 14 players (three of them goaltenders) made up their roster.
Because of their lack of depth, they staggered to a 3-15 mark that included a handful of losses that saw them fizzle from fatigue during the last period and watch leads slip away from them.
For the Knights, they concluded their winter with a 10-8 record that saw them miss the postseason by a point. They carried a 19-player roster, but with eight players graduating, they were looking at a possibly shaky future.
So instead of entering the 2011-12 season with a cloud of uncertainly hanging over their heads, the two programs decided to do what a handful of boysâ and girlsâ teams have done over the past few seasons.
âWe made a decision to get together and build a program from there,â added Dave Fera, who is the head coach of the new-look SRA/PCD/Wheeler co-op squad. âIt was kind of a mutual thing, coaches talking at games last year and stuff and deciding that this was the best thing to do.â
The team is currently carrying a 25-player roster, with three-fifths of it hailing from the Blackstone Valley area. A dozen players are from St. Rayâs, 10 come from PCD, and three represent Wheeler.
And after eight games, the team owns a 4-3-1 mark in Division II-North play, but the Saints/Knights are coming off a huge win that could turn around their fortunes, a 4-3 overtime win over second-place Pilgrim last Saturday night on the road at Thayer Arena.
SRA freshman Nathan Duffy notched his second goal of the game in overtime off a pass from Saints junior Ben Mello to win the teamâs most dramatic game of the season and push its record back over the .500 mark.
âI think we really gelled as a team and came together in that game,â offered Fera. âEven though their backs were against the wall, you could tell that the kids had each otherâs backs and really wanted to win that game, and they did what they had to do and really got it together.â
Fera, who was a co-head coach with Greg Dudzik on last yearâs PCD squad, knew he had something special with this seasonâs new team when the players got together for the first time during the R.I. Summer Hockey League.
âThe kids came to liking each other during the summer league,â added Fera, who has four assistant coaches, Dudzik, Rob Gribbin (last yearâs SRA head coach), Charles Koutsogiane, and Paul Fera. âIt was quick. I had no issues at all with the kids not getting along, and things really worked out well.â
When the season started, the Saints/Knights stormed out to a 2-0 start, but hit a few bumps in the road in back-to-back losses to Cumberland and Coventry, who are regarded as two of the Division IIâs premier teams.
But two weeks ago, during a break in their league schedule, they came away with the Boss Arena Holiday Classic title by defeating East Providence in the semifinals, 3-1, and Cranston East in the championship game, 3-0.
âThings are turning around,â noted Fera. âI think weâre skating hard now and skating better as a team. The kids have reacted to the new coaching staff very well, and they were very patient and understood that changes had to be made, and things have been been great.â
One name on this team that is very familiar among local hockey fans is Mello, a highly-skilled center whose 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) has him ranked sixth among the divisionâs scoring leaders. He led the Saints in scoring a year ago with 11 goals and as many assists.
Sophomore wing Mark Carrara, who has been lined up with Mello for most of the year, has six goals and two assists, and is coming off a strong freshman season that saw him score 12 goals and set up nine others.
Mark Long, a junior center out of East Providence who also scored a dozen goals for PCD last year, is another key offensive threat, as is Duffy, who has five goals.
Cam Sigal, a PCD senior from Seekonk who is second on the team in scoring with four goals and nine assists, is currently playing defense because the team is minus the services of two blueliners who are out with injuries.
The two full-time defensemen currently in action are SRA seniors Tyler Duffy and Connor Harrington, and in goal, SRA senior John Tougas and junior Max Lemay and PCD junior Tim Malo have divided the minutes.
The Duffy brothers, Mello, Tougas, Carrara, and SRA senior wing Jonathan Geller are the six Pawtucket players on the roster.
The team is back on action on Saturday with a 9:30 p.m. game at Warwickâs Warburton Arena against winless Ponaganset, but then the schedule gets a lot tougher.
On Monday at 3 p.m., Pilgrim pays a visit to Lynch Arena to face SRA/PCD and looking to avenge last weekendâs loss, and four nights later, the team will head to Adelard Arena to take on unbeaten Cumberland (7-0).
Winning two of those three games would certainly go a long way for the club, which is trying to stay in the top four in the standings, because a top-four spot guarantees them a berth in the eight-team playoffs.
âOur goal this year is to make the playoffs,â added Fera. âItâs where we want to be. Thatâs our first and foremost goal, and everything else after that will be gravy.â
Obviously, SRA/PCD, like every team, would like to win the state title, and if the club actually does that, it would become just the second co-op boysâ team in the RIILâs history to accomplish this feat, joining last winterâs Division III champion, the Johnston/North Providence co-op squad.
With a slow growth of co-op programs throughout the state, three other co-op teams in the boysâ Division II and III ranks, and three or four teams currently struggling to skate 15 players night after night, will the number of co-op clubs grow next year and the year after?
âI do see a lot of co-op down the road,â said Fera. âFor starters, hockey is an expensive sport, and my hatâs off to the parents that have brought their kids up in hockey, never mind having them play in high school. But I think (co-op) is good because this still keeps the kids on the ice and having fun, rather than not having anything at all.â