The course of the Huntingtown hockey team’s season changed well before it began, around a table at a local restaurant.
The Hurricanes’ six returning seniors gathered there one night with an important task: convincing Chip Vernon to return as head coach. The 2011-12 season, Vernon’s first at the helm, included a Southern Conference championship and a trip to the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League title game, where Huntingtown fell to Atholton.
“At the beginning of [last] season he said, ‘If you guys want to make it to state, I’ll get you there, but you have to put your hearts and souls into it,’ ” said Ben Camilletti, now a senior captain for the Hurricanes. “We want to do the same thing this year because we only lost a couple seniors, and thought with him, we can make it back to the state title and try to win it.”
The only problem was that Vernon planned to step away after last season. He had spent 14 years as a hockey coach, including two as an assistant at Huntingtown, and now he was faced with the graduation of his son, C.J., a defenseman.
But Vernon’s heir apparent, assistant Chris Tortorella, had to move to New Jersey for work. C.J. kept telling his father how the players all wanted him back.
Finally, it came down to the meeting at the restaurant. The rising seniors stated their case — “a pretty compelling argument,” Vernon said — and the coach laid out some strict conditions.
“They said, ‘Coach, we need you. We promise we’ll do X, Y and Z, all the things you ask,’ ” Vernon said. “So we had a long talk. I said in order for me to do this, this is what I’ll expect from you: A full commitment, no drama, you’ll play the position I tell you to play, you’ll practice hard every time you step on the ice and do what we say, and then I’ll come there and I’ll give you my best every time I step on the ice.
“And they all agreed. So here I am.”
It’s a comfortable fit for Huntingtown. Vernon first coached many of the Hurricanes when they were five years old. That includes Camilletti, who appreciates Vernon’s physical style of hockey, his ability to motivate and his hard-nosed approach.
Last season’s squad held an early 1-0 lead in the championship before ultimately coming up short. The Hurricanes are off to a 2-2 start this season, with a one-goal loss to Walt Whitman in MSHL play, as well as a 5-2 defeat against DeMatha.
“We felt we were the best team in the state [last season],” Vernon said. “So this year, we’re not saying we’re the best team in the state, but we’re gonna try our best. I think the guys feel they have some unfinished business.”
When his team’s season started a month ago, Stone Bridge Coach John Lynch was nervous. The team he’d guided to a championship a year ago had graduated seven seniors, and because so many of his players have obligations to club teams, the Bulldogs don’t have time to hold practices during the season.
Lynch said his fears have been mostly put to rest through already this season, with his team opening the season on a four-game winning streak during which it has allowed just one goal. Three of Stone Bridge’s four victories have come by the Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League’s 10-goal mercy rule and the fourth came in a 9-1 win over then-undefeated Freedom last Friday.
“Coming back from the championship from last year, we graduated a lot of kids and I was a little concerned about how we were going to be playing,” Lynch said. “When you graduated, five, six, seven kids like the last three years, how are you going to replenish? And that’s the main concern . . . You want to do well. We start every year wanting to win the last game of the season.”
The Buldogs have gotten an early-season boost from freshman Cade Groton, who has stepped into Stone Bridge’s first line with five goals and 10 assists through four games. Groton’s first line teammates Trevor Mack and Chris Berry are tied for the team lead with eight goals apiece, and together the Bulldogs’ top line has 43 points this season.
Stone Bridge’s defense has been bolstered by the addition of junior Eric Rindfleisch, who moved back this season after playing center for the Bulldogs last season. Rindfleisch, who has experience as a defenseman from club hockey, has helped solidify the Stone Bridge defense and said that while his coach might have been surprised at how quickly his team jelled, the early success hasn’t surprised the players.
“Everybody sort of works tic tac toe, you know?” Rindfleisch said. “Everybody has this special bond. Everybody’s really close on the team and it works really well.”
Gonzaga opens the season in the top spot after opening the season by outscoring its first three Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League opponents 14-1. . . . Briar Woods dropped a 1-0 game against Oakton in November but is 2-0 this month with an 11-1 win over Bishop Ireton and a 5-2 victory over Paul VI. . . . Defending MSHL champion Atholton has outscored its opposition 19-4 to start the season. . . . With 2011 first-team All-Met selection Zach Arden back healthy after an injury-plagued junior season, Churchill topped rival Whitman 7-3 and stayed competitive in losses to Gonzaga and Landon.
1. Gonzaga (8-1)
2. Stone Bridge (4-0)
3. Atholton (3-0)
4. Landon (3-0-1)
5. Briar Woods (3-1)
6. Churchill (4-2)
7. DeMatha (6-6-2)
8. Whitman (3-2-1)
9. Woodbridge (3-0)
10. Huntingtown (2-2)