CUMBERLAND — During the early afternoon hours Sunday, approximately 16 hours after what was most certainly the most impactful and thrilling triumph in the two-year history of the Lincoln/Cumberland Co-op girls' hockey program, senior captain Jean Bray and her teammates congregated at freshman phenom Cassidy Simanski's home.
They did so for what Bray called a “Hair-Dyeing Party.
“It was the whole team's idea,” Bray giggled at the time, following the Lions' demonstrative 5-1 Game 2 victory over Narragansett/North Kingstown/South Kingstown Co-op, one that gave Bray and Co. a sweep of the R.I. Division II Tournament's best-of-three semifinal series at Lynch Arena.
“We met at noon, and some of the girls are dyeing their hair red, some others blue, our school colors,” she added. “I don't know who came up with (the notion) first, but someone said last week, 'If we win (the semifinal), let's dye our hair!' so here we are.”
With those consecutive victories, third-seeded Lincoln/Cumberland earned the right to battle top-ranked Barrington/Mount Hope/Portsmouth Co-op in a best-of-three Division II championship set; Game 1 is slated for 6:15 tonight at Brown University's Meehan Auditorium.
“It was really exciting, how we won (Saturday) night,” Bray offered. “We kept thinking about last year, how awful it was to win only two games and be next-to-last in our division. We were 2-14, but now we're playing for the state championship. Even when we made it to the playoffs, we kept saying to each other, 'We're so much better than we were last year!'
“I think we've improved so much because we've got a lot of the same players back,” she continued. “We only gained three new players (Simanski, and fellow frosh Kathryn Cunningham of Cumberland and Marissa Isabella of Lincoln), and they've fit in so well with this team. With those additions, we gained a full line.”
Head coach Dick Ernst seemed just as animated as his girls after they clinched that win over the second-seeded Storm on Saturday.
“These kids have a tremendous will to win; they're never satisfied,” he smiled after the tilt. “They want to be better, they're always striving to get better. We won (the initial contest, 6-4, on Friday) night, but they came out hungrier and more intense than they did (Friday). They could have said (to themselves), 'OK, we won the first game, so we'll win the second,' but not with these girls.
“They picked it up a couple of notches and went out to win it … I think the difference in this one was we only had three penalties, and they had six. The girls had a lot of discipline staying out of the box, and that was a very significant factor in this win. You know, this is the fourth high school hockey program I've coached to earn a berth in the state finals. I did it five times with the Cranston East boys, three times with the La Salle girls and one each with the North Smithfield boys and this group.
“This is the one that means more to me, and it's because of where we came from.”
The Lions have taken enormous strides since last winter, when they mustered their lone two wins against Smithfield/North Smithfield Co-op, another upstart crew. They didn't have much depth then, and they still don't, but Ernst's constant preachings of not just the physical “X's and O's” but also the mental aspects helped this group overcome.
“I think our spirit was off the charts (in the semifinal series),” Ernst said. “It wasn't just the 'hip-hip-hooray' part; they boosted each other up, and always gave adrenaline shots to each other. We kept that spirit up, and I think nothing is going to beat the enthusiasm and spirit of Lincoln/Cumberland.”
He explained how Simanski finished second in the state in points with 32 (20 goals and 12 assists), behind only sophomore Meghan Miller of Barrington/Mount Hope/Portsmouth. He indicated Bray placed fourth in that department, and sophomore Cassidy DiPaola and Cunningham tied for sixth.
“Simanski missed a couple of games, and so did Marissa, because of a couple of minor injuries, but we had some other kids pick up the slack,” he shrugged. “(Senior) Alison Jefferey played very well.
“And look at our two defensemen (junior Lauren Hervieux and sophomore Marissa Mancini). They play all 45 minutes, and all 45 they play very aggressively. They won't get beat. Honestly, I think they're as fast and tough as any defenseman in Division I or II. They're just very smart girls. Their stamina and strength are amazing.
“After this game, I told the girls I love them, that I was proud of them,” he continued. “I told them they had strived all year to get to Brown; I said, 'You never wavered in your desire to get to the state finals, and now we're there! We're going for the championship!'”
Another key spoke in the wheel that is Lincoln/Cumberland is senior netminder Ashley Devolve, who halted 48 of the Storm's opportunities in those triumphs.
“What some people may not realize is that's one fantastic athlete and competitor,” Ernst stated. “Like I told you before, Ashley is the girls' field hockey goalie (at Lincoln), and I had to recruit her to come out for the ice hockey team.
“These (forwards) we're playing against, they've been playing since they were five, six, seven years old, and this is only her second year, and she had to learn from scratch. Those saves she made kept us in games all year, and again here in the playoffs. They were key. Another was the hard work they did. Like any team that wins, it takes a tremendous amount of conditioning, and they did that, too.”
Ernst couldn't say enough about the dedication of his two assistants, former Cranston East All-Stater Tom Pereira and ex-La Salle girls' mentor Bob O'Donnell.
“Tom's been with me since 1993, either as a player or an assistant,” he said. “You know, he was the Finals MVP of the state championship team in 1994 and '95. What he does now is teach the kids the moves – how to stickhandle, how to pass, shoot and skate. And, with Bob, his primary function is to work with Ashley. He's had a huge impact on her progress in goal.”
Pereira immediately backed his former coach.
“I can't believe she's the same keeper as the one we saw on the first day of practice (in November),” he claimed. “I think she's 80 percent better than when she started. She's only been on the ice for about 15 months, but she's been amazing.
“After (Saturday night's) game, they were so elated, they were taking pictures of each other in the locker room with their cell phones. Once we got them settled, and that was tough, I just thanked them for giving me the opportunity to coach my first game at Brown since I finished playing in 1995. This will be the first time I've walked back into that arena for 16-17 years, and I'm excited.
“We're playing very well right now, and I want to see us continue that.”