Sometimes the fate of a public school ice hockey team can come down to who happens to move into your zip code.
Defending Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League champion Briar Woods got a lucky break this season with the return of senior goalie Elliot Shelton, who moved back to the area this fall from Massachusetts. The Falcons lost both varsity goalies from last year’s state title team to graduation and a move to Canada.
“We were obviously disappointed to lose our goalies last year,” Coach Bill Hughes said. “We didn’t have the depth in goalie, and lo and behold this came out of left field to give us a little more depth.”
Briar Woods lost first team All-Met defenseman Brendan Walsh to graduation but returns Justin Plumhoff and fellow forwards Tarek Zagade, Zach Regester and Luke Benitez. The Falcons have outscored opponents 32-7 in their first three wins of the season and have two more games separating them from their annual rivalry matchup with Stone Bridge at Ashburn Ice House.
The rosters of both teams are stacked with players from the Ashburn Xtreme club team, which means the Bulldogs-Falcons meeting marks one of the few times that longtime teammates get the opportunity to take different sides on the ice. The Dec. 20 game is expected to be packed and will give the Bulldogs an opportunity to avenge their NVSHL semifinal loss to Briar Woods last season that spoiled an undefeated run.
The Falcons spent the past few years fighting to overtake the top team; this year, they know they’ll be the target.
“We were getting closer and closer to the championship each year,” Hughes said. “We know what everyone else is thinking as they look at us on the schedule.”
Langley and Woodbridge are the best bets to upset the usual Loudoun County powerhouses, according to Vikings Coach Mike Strycharz. Woodbridge lost its starting goalie and five seniors from last season’s semifinalist team, but returns seniors Jack Strycharz and Riley Wanat. The Vikings started the season with a 2-2 draw against Broad Run despite nearly outshooting the Spartans 2-1. Woodbridge held off Yorktown and and Dartmouth commit Cameron Smith, 7-4. . . .
Langley Coach Rob Faktorow stepped down this season after 11 years and his most successful season ever. Grady Little, a Langley alumnus and former Junior A player, took over for the Saxons. Langley graduated six top seniors from the state runner-up squad but added seven talented freshman, as well as three upperclassmen who were unable to play in years past.
Atholton gets another advantage over county competition this season with the addition of the first true junior varsity team in Howard County. The Raiders have won the last two county championships and the league title in 2012 and will now get the opportunity to bring underclassmen into Coach Bud Michels’ system earlier. There are only seven junior varsity teams across the rest of the state’s public schools.
The Raiders graduated five seniors, including their starting goalie, but Michels has no concerns about the depth of his returning squad.
“In the last two years, and this year, I feel like I can start any of my guys,” Michels said. “My first line out is as good as the third line out. It’s a deep batch.”
Some of that has to do with the remaining talent — captain and natural team leader Matt Haney and versatile Evan Davis — but it’s also a result of Michels’ emphasis on even-keeled teams over superstars.
“I don’t engineer my team around one player,” Michels said. “We purposely make all players learn different positions so if anybody gets injured, thrown out of the game, academically ineligible, I’m not going to lose a game ‘cause of one guy. I don’t want any one player to be a target for the competition.”
Other county contenders include Howard, River Hill and Marriotts Ridge, which features junior Brandon Barrett stepping into goal for the first time after last year’s starter moved to Maine. Freshman Jordan Smith will add his speed to the Mustangs’ defense.
Gonzaga returns 13 players from last year’s MAPHL championship team, but lost All-Met Player of the Year Jack Slater. The Eagles are 7-0-1 so far. . . . Defending MSHL champion Churchill is off to a 2-0 start, including a 5-3 win against Whitman and seven total goals from sophomore forward Junmno Kim. . . . Spalding fields a young squad this season after graduating six seniors (including All-Met first teamer Breanainn McNeally) but adds three freshmen that Coach Patrick McNeally “expects big things from.”
1. Gonzaga (7-0-1) LY: 1
2. Briar Woods (3-0) LY: 2
3. Churchill (3-0) LY: 3
4. Stone Bridge (4-0) LY: 6
5. Spalding (3-1) LY: 4
6. Landon (3-0) LY: 7
7. Woodbridge (3-0-1) LY: 9
8. Atholton (4-0) LY: 8
9. Langley (2-0-1) LY: 5
10. Wootton (3-1) LY: NR