The Whitman-Hanson/Silver Lake high school girls’ hockey team enters the new season with a lot of challenges — some that were inevitable, some that frankly blindsided it — but you won’t hear it making excuses, that’s for sure.
As the final horn blew last March that concluded WHSL’s campaign with a 2-0 loss to Winchester in the first round of the Division 2 state tournament, it would be the last time two of the program’s most decorated players — Mel McAleer and Hannah Tracy — would sport Panthers black and red on the ice again.
McAleer and Tracy, who combined for 194 goals and 142 assists dating back to the Pembroke/Whitman-Hanson co-op, headlined an eight-player senior class that guided WHSL to a 38-19-5 record, back-to-back SEMGHL Northeast crowns and its first tournament win since the co-op’s inception at the outset of the 2014-15 season.
WHSL head coach Kevin Marani said the loss of McAleer and Tracy, who both hail from Hanson, serves as a great opportunity for the players on this season’s team.
“I think now they know, well we don’t have Hannah and Mel, if I don’t score we don’t win,” Marani said. “Where if they don’t score last year, Hannah and Mel would score and we’d win.”
On top of the senior class’ departure, two players Marani was going to rely heavily on this season in sophomores and SEMGHL Northeast All-Stars – forward Alyssa Murphy (20 goals and 23 assists in 2016-17) and defenseman Delaney Grace (five goals and 13 assists) – opted not to return to the club, which threw a wrench into the Panthers’ plans.
WHSL is now tasked with replacing 80 percent of its offensive production from last winter, its starting goaltender and three of its four starting defensemen.
Regardless of the losses, WHSL does, however, return sophomore defenseman Natalie Nemes, who burst onto the scene last season contributing big minutes for the Panthers en route to being named an SEMGHL Northeast All-Star.
“Even last year with the talent we had on the team, she was our best skater,” Marani said. “From last year into this year it’s just confidence. As a freshman last year, she held back a tiny bit [and] I think this year it’s going to be her coming out party, I really do. I haven’t seen a better defenseman in the three years that I’ve coached on any team I’ve played against.”
Joining Nemes on the WHSL blue line will be sophomore Antonia Driscoll and junior Zoe Lydon (Hanson), both of whom played sparingly last winter. Along with those three, the co-op will need at least one newcomer to solidify herself into a starting role, but who that will be is up in the air at this point.
“We expect a lot, we need a lot from Zoe and Antonia,” Marani said. “Both look like they’ve put in the work, so we need them to step up obviously from not playing much last year to getting into a major role this year. [Also], we just need one freshman to step up and hopefully have four deep and make it a solid defensive corps in front of our freshman goalie.”
That freshman goalie Marani referred is Kat Gilbert, who he said has impressed him thus far. Gilbert is just one of about a dozen freshmen that will take the ice for WHSL this season.
While the team may be young, they still have three seniors – led by captains Shannon Elwood and Colleen Hughes (Hanson).
“All of them are leaders, they’re great kids, they’re great academically,” Marani said. “They’re just good kids.”
Another change for WHSL this season is it will be competing in the newly formed girls’ hockey Patriot League, which will offer some enhanced play with the likes of Duxbury, Hingham and Pembroke in it. Not only did the Panthers’ path to a Division title get a bit tougher, but its route to a possible state title down the road did as well, as they have been moved from Division 2 up to Division 1. Regardless, Marani said as long as his club gives it its all, that’s all he can ask for.
“We need to go out and play,” the third-year WHSL coach said. “The schedule is in front of us and if we win, we win, if we lose, we lose, but as long as we’re all going in the same direction and with one goal, and that is to play our best and to give it our best, then wins and losses are going to be irrelevant.”
WHSL will open its season on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 8:45 p.m. at Hobomock Arenas in Pembroke against Marshfield.
“I truly just want them to go in, play as hard as they can, learn the speed of high school hockey and we’ll grow from there,” Marani said. “We’ll get better every game.”