The first time Dick Ernst met with his new Lincoln High girls' hockey squad, back in mid-November 2011, he let everyone know he had one goal in mind: Capturing a state Division II championship.
“It was before our first-ever practice, and we looked at him like he was crazy,” junior defenseman Lauren Hervieux laughed after a workout at Lynch Arena on Thursday afternoon. “We thought he was out of his mind.”
Stated senior captain and center Jean Bray: “She's right. Lauren and I looked at each other and thought, 'Yeah, right! Like that's gonna happen!' We just weren't very good. We were a first-year team, and we had six or seven girls who didn't even know how to skate. We were barely a team.”
That contingent finished with a hardly stellar 2-14-0 record, achieving its lone two victories against Smithfield, another program that had just started up.
When Ernst got them together prior to their initial practice this past November, he did the same.
“Coach said he wanted us to win the state title, and that he thought we had the talent to do it,” Hervieux recalled. “Back then, we still didn't believe it, but those times have changed.”
On Saturday night, Jan. 5, the Lincoln/Cumberland Cco-op squad (it also consists of two Clippers) skated off the Adelard Arena ice hooting and hollering over a 4-2 loss to mighty Mount St. Charles.
That's right, it celebrated.
Ernst had asked his troops, during the second-period intermission, one in which they trailed, 4-0, simply to “Go out and win the third period. You can skate with them. You've proven it! Now go to it!”
The Lions responded in kind, outscoring the Division I Mounties by a 2-0 count.
“That was awesome!” sophomore winger Cassidy DiPaola claimed. “It was amazing. That was Mount, and we knew they had a lot of talent and a lot of pride. They probably thought that it was going to be an easy win for them, but we went out there in the third and showed them, 'We're Lincoln/Cumberland, and we can play. That told us all of our hard work was paying off.
“Coach was very excited about it,” she added. “He said to us in the locker room afterward, 'I told you you could do it! You just need to have faith in yourselves!' As a team, I can tell you, we'll get nervous sometimes. We were facing Mount, and – in the first two periods – we were tentative; we were kind of shaky because of our lack of confidence.
“But in the third, we played the game we knew how to play.”
At this early juncture of the campaign, the collective mindset of Lincoln/Cumberland – a Division II representative – is changing. It already has recorded more triumphs than it did all of last winter, as it currently sits at 3-5 overall, while two of its defeats came to D-I foe La Salle (6-2, though the Lions had played them to a 1-1 stalemate until a Ram broke the tie with a minute left in the second stanza) and Mount St. Charles.
It also has posted a 2-1 win over another D-I school, Burrillville, and ripped D-II host Narragansett, 6-2, at the University of Rhode Island's Boss Arena.
“We're believing it now, and I think it's because we know each other better,” Bray noted. “We've played more with each other. We know each other's skills better. When we beat Narragansett a couple of weeks ago, we were so excited! That was the first team we had beaten other than Smithfield since our first season.
“Narragansett's a pretty good team,” she continued. “After the win, everyone was screaming, they were so happy. Dick just smiled, and he told us, 'I told you this was possible. I'm proud of you all, but now we have to focus on next week.'”
If there's a particular reason for the Lions' breakthrough this season (he's not going to hear this), it's the head coach himself.
Ernst has made it clear he doesn't want any credit; in fact, during his interview for this piece, he kept saying, “It's not about me. It's about the girls. Focus on the girls!'”
No offense, Coach, but here goes:
Ernst, now 74, has a mentoring background that few others can rival, and even that's an understatement. He landed his first head coaching gig – after stellar hockey and tennis careers at both the old Cranston High (now East) and Providence College – with the North Providence High icemen in 1962.
Since then, he has coached an astonishing 108 hockey and tennis teams in 51 seasons, including his alma mater (Cranston East), not to mention La Salle, North Smithfield, Barrington, Moses Brown and – now – Lincoln/Cumberland. In that time, he has snared dozens of divisional and state titles.
(The only year he hasn't led a squad came in 2003; that's when he became an Interscholastic League official in charge of overseeing hockey sites for high school tilts).
According to his latest crop of female skaters, he brings to them several qualities they adore, including motivation, enthusiasm, expertise and humor.
“He's boosted our spirits on and off the ice,” DiPaola mentioned. “He tells us at every single game, 'Believe in yourselves. You can do this!' We'd be looking at the girls from La Salle or Mount, and our mouths are hanging open because we know they have players who can score three or four goals, like, whenever they want. But he'll say, 'You're just as good as they are. You've put in the work, now go to it!'
“Coach is really big on motivating and keeping our spirits up,” she added. “That gives us confidence, and we feel better about our abilities. At one point this season, we were 3-3, and we were shocked. I look now at our first and second lines, and it's a big step up, because – last year – we didn't have a second line, not one that could skate anyway. Now we have one.”
Two days after Christmas, Ernst and his Lions met at the DiPaola homestead in Lincoln for a team party. There he chose to deliver what he deemed a motivational poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” composed by famed American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In it, the author describes a sea captain who failed to heed the warnings of a golden ring around the moon, one indicating a hurricane's approach. It ended, of course, in tragedy.
“I asked them what the theme of that poem was, and – you know – not one of them could give an answer,” Ernst grinned (as this journalist tried and failed as well). “One came close, but I looked at them and said, 'Listen to the voice of experience!' The kids were puzzled, and the parents loved it. I think the kids know now want it means.”
In essence, the former teacher uses poems – he's also read them “Casey at the Bat” and is planning others for the rest of the year – to inspire.
As for the physical approach, on Thursday afternoon, he had his squad scrimmaging a bevy of former La Salle male hockey stars at Lynch Arena.
“Just watch this,” Ernst insisted. “Look at these girls skate! They're facing better players, naturally, but this is just one way they can improve speed, they're passing, etc.”
During this practice game, Ernst cracked jokes to those sitting on the bench, all the while keeping an eye on the ice happenings.
“You know, I was once asked to coach a swim team,” he said seriously. “I just said, 'No tanks!'
Then, “Someone also asked me to coach a softball team,” he offered. “I said, 'Nah, that sport drives me batty!'”
“We love him, in part, because he's hilarious,” giggled Hervieux, an assistant captain. “He's got a new joke every day. They're so cheesy, they're funny.”
She hesitated, then explained, “He's so good at motivating, and he genuinely cares about how we do, and the team itself. He pushes us. He doesn't have to do a lot of yelling; it's more about goal-setting. He gives us a reason to do what we're doing. At first, we weren't very organized amongst ourselves, but he's helped us with that.
“We've gotten a lot better with our passing and working together as a team,” she continued. “We've definitely gotten better at running the different plays he's given us, and I think it's because he's a stickler for repetition. We keep going over the same plays every day so we get it right for a game.
“I think every one here knows we're improving, and we all have the goals he's given us: First, to get a playoff berth, and then move through the playoffs.”
Sophomore Marissa Mancini, whom Ernst says is his premier defenseman with Hervieux, indicated it all comes down to dedication and having a purpose.
“We're a better team this year because everyone's improving,” she stated. “We had girls last year who couldn't even skate, and now they can do everything we can do. We had some girls who came in with a hockey background, and the ones who didn't are catching up.”
“We have a lot more determination now, and we believe in ourselves a lot more,” she added. “Last year, we were unsteady because we were brand new. Nobody had played with each other before. Now we've bonded; we're like a family, and we know where each other's going to be on the ice. We're just meshing better.
“Coach has helped us. He'll call us at home to motivate us, tell us we had a great practice. I don't think anyone else wants us to succeed more than him, and that makes me feel awesome! I know someone is there to coach me, teach me everything I need to know. That makes us want to work harder for him. We want to win for him, and he wants us to win for ourselves.”
She claimed she's surprised at her squad's early-season success, but isn't.
“I'm not shocked because we're a better team this year; we've been together this long, so we're supposed to be,” she said. “But I am kind of surprised because I didn't expect the more inexperienced girls to pick up the game so quickly.”
Case in point: Senior netminder Ashley Devolve.
“She had never skated before, and I tried to get her to come out, as she was the goalie on the (Lincoln) field hockey team,” Ernst noted. “We went three weeks without a goaltender (in the 2011-12 campaign), but she finally came out. We put her on the ice with the skates and equipment at practice on a Wednesday and we trained her. We did the same thing on Thursday, and – on Friday night against North Smithfield (at the Rhode Island Sports Center) – we lost, 4-0, but she had 26 saves.
“Now she's fantastic,” he added. “That gives me a lot of satisfaction; first, because it shows me these girls are enjoying the sport, and, second, because they're steadily improving. They're becoming more competitive, competitive enough to go at it with every other team in the state.”
When asked why he believes they've jelled, Ernst says simply, “Because they're learning the concept of team hockey; puck control and unselfish passing. They're improving because they've worked on their individual skills. We've developed those individual skills so they can enjoy the unselfish concept of teamwork passing. That's it.
“Then again, they've also worked their butts off with conditioning. Last season, our first line had to be out there 30 of the 36 minutes because we didn't have experience on the second, but that's changing. The kids now believe.
“Jean Bray is the one responsible for us even being here,” he added. “She's the one that dove through all the hoops. She's the one who went to the school committee, to the meetings. She's the one who instituted this team. What more can you ask for such a smart, devoted girl?
“And our defensemen, Lauren and Marissa, I've never seen two girls give more of themselves to get the job done. I mean, they never leave the ice. Against Mount, those two were on the ice for 45 minutes, and they did an outstanding job in front of Devolve.”
Ernst also conveyed his secret as to getting his players so involved, so spirited, so hell-bent on achieving.
“I've played for great coaches over the years – Howie Crins at Cranston East, Tom Eccleston at PC and my mentor at Bridgton Academy (in Bridgton, Me.) – and I've taken bits and pieces from all of them,” he explained. “I also have two outstanding assistants. Tom Pereira was on my Cranston East team that won back-to-back state titles in '94 and '95 at Brown. He was the MVP of both state championship teams, and also coached with me on several other teams that won state titles.
“Then there's Bob O'Donnell, who was La Salle's first girls hockey coach. You know, both of his daughters were All-State players, and Kate was the Interscholastic league's top scorer in 2009. They help be out a ton. And the parents, they're terrific. They're one of the best groups of parents I've ever had the pleasure of working with.”
He also credits the belief LHS Principal Kevin McNamara (a former Lions' tennis coach whom Ernst has known for decades) and Lincoln and Cumberland athletic directors Brian Fineberg and Frank Geiselman) had in him.
As for his young ladies?
“You know I've been coaching a long, long time, and – of all the teams I've been a part of – these girls have showed me as much effort, passion and drive, if not more, than any other,” he smiled. “I'm really proud of them all. They're making this happen, not me.”
His players beg to differ.
“He's friendly and nice; he reminds us of our grandfathers,” Bray said. “He's always cracking a new joke, and he's such a fun person to be with. He can be hard on us, like when we're not paying attention or late on the ice, but he just wants us to get better. He doesn't need to yell; if he's not pleased, oh, we know it.”
DiPaola admitted, “I can say see us Brown (University's Meehan Auditorium, site of the 2012-13 R.I. Division II Hockey Championships). I can envision us in a big pile on the ice, celebrating a state title.”
When asked why, she continued, “Because Coach tells us every single day he can see us there. He helps us believe we can get there. He knows what he's doing, with all of his experience. We trust in him.”