PAWTUCKET — As a father watching his son represent the St. Raphael/Providence Country Day/Wheeler co-op squad last winter, Gary Leonard noticed it often didn't play as a team, a fluid unit. To him, it looked as if the players seemed more concerned with individual stats and/or glory.
“I thought the biggest issue with them was selfish team play,” he stated Tuesday afternoon. “When I became the head coach back in September, it was my goal to eliminate the selfishness and try to build a program based on team success.”
It didn't happen right away, but over the past five weeks, Leonard has seen an attitudinal turnaround – and the proof is in his club's five-game league win streak.
Prior to Dec. 28, the Saints had captured only two victories in its initial five tilts against Division II foes, but then something magical happened. While facing Mount Hope at Lynch Arena on that Saturday night, Leonard's crew delivered a sterling performance and humbled the Huskies, 8-1.
SPW followed that outing with a 4-2 triumph over always-pesky Prout, then mustered a 2-1 overtime win over Middletown before drubbing Pilgrim, 8-0. Most recently, on Monday afternoon, it out-hustled Portsmouth en route to a 4-2 verdict.
The team now will carry a 7-3 II-North mark into its contest against still-unbeaten Cumberland at 7:30 p.m., Friday.
Leonard has several explanations for SPW's success, but it all begins with a better collective mind-set about playing unified hockey.
“Let's put it this way: Just two days before that game against Mount Hope, I went to (senior co-captain) Dylan Gastel, who had been one of our forwards for the last three years,” he stated. “Because we had a couple of holes in our defense due to some injuries – (sophomore) Dylan Boisclair had suffered a fractured collarbone in our Injury Fund game and we had some other nagging injuries – I went to Gastel and asked him to move back.
“He looked at me and said, 'Coach, if that's what you think will help the team, I'm all for it,'” he added. “We also were forced to move (junior) Josh Long from forward to defense. Josh, I just can't say enough about him. He's the type of kid who, if I asked him to play in goal, he'd say, 'OK, Coach, where are the pads? I'll suit up.'
“This is exactly what I've been trying to get the guys to buy into – the team concept. It's not about an individual, it's not about stats, but about being a good teammate and turning everything they do into the team's success.”
During that last win over the Patriots, Leonard discovered he'd have another defenseman out for at least 30 days; PCD sophomore Coleman Maguire sustained a concussion.
Still, the first-year mentor is looking forward to continuing the mid-season surge.
“There have been a couple of things: First, I think we've had improved goaltending over the past five games,” he noted. “(SRA senior) Brandon Gribbin has started every league game for us so far, and his goals-against average is down by about two a game. His save percentage had been around 75 percent, but in that (span), he's now up to over 90 percent.
“I honestly think it's because he's built more confidence, but that the defense in front of him has played better,” he continued. “Those guys have become so much more cohesive. We've adopted our team's defensive systems to our needs, and it's led to success.
“Then again, we continue to be hot offensively. We've got a number of players who are among the top scorers in not only II-North but the entire division statewide.”
It, by the way, is perhaps the strongest, toughest division in the entire state from top to bottom, as evidenced by how well defending Rhode Island D-II champion Lincoln and Cumberland are playing right now (both are undefeated). North Smithfield also has a winning mark and is a gutsy squad in its own right.
Pacing SPW in the scoring department is Wheeler junior right wing Justin Katz, who has manufactured four goals and 14 assists (18 points) so far. Others include SRA junior center Nate Duffy and sophomore left wing Zach Librizzi, both of whom have registered 11 tallies and five feeds, while top defenseman and PCD senior Tom Dudzik has planted six goals and nine assists.
In addition, Leonard has two players tied with eight points (Gastel and sophomore Patrick Fleming) and another pair with seven (sophomore and son Griffin Leonard and senior co-captain Mark Carrera.
“Mark centers Pat and Griffin on the same line, and he's been a huge help in those younger guys understanding what to do defensively,” the elder Leonard said. “We play more of a defensive-minded system, so he's been communicating to them where they need to be and why.”
It's hardly surprising that SPW pays particular attention in practices on keeping the puck away from Gribbin. Coach Leonard played goalie at Warwick Vets High back in the mid-1980s and helped it to a state Division II championship in 1986-87. As the Hurricanes' top netminder, he was named the tourney's MVP before moving on to represent Roger Williams University.
Likewise, his three assistants all were keepers on the interscholastic level.
“We have to comprise the only staff in the state that can say that,” he chuckled. “It's true; early on, the guys were more interested in padding their stats, but I've seen a change, and we all want it to continue.
“Just (Monday), after the win (over Portsmouth) down in West Warwick, I said to the guys, 'You know what? Yes, we've won five straight, but the best thing about it is there's plenty of room for improvement,'” he added. “I also told them that if we keep working hard, and playing to our potential, we're just going to keep getting better.
“These players are believing.”