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High school notebook: Freshman John Leonard of Amherst contributes to top-ranked Cathedral hockey team 

One reason the Cathedral hockey team enjoys such success is that coach Brian Foley puts his best players on the ice, regardless of age or experience level.

Such is the case for freshman forward John Leonard of Amherst, who’s contributed solidly over his first nine varsity games for the top-ranked team in Massachusetts.

The Panthers (8-0-1) earned the top spot in the ESPN Boston rankings for the first time in program history following a 3-2 victory over previous No. 1 Boston College High last Saturday at the Olympia. Leonard picked up an assist on the game-winning goal late in the third period.

Through nine games, Leonard is seventh on the team with seven points (five goals, two assists). He skates a regular shift and sees considerable power play time.

“I hoped that I could produce right away, but my first few games were a little slow,” he said. “Once I got over worrying about making mistakes, I started playing better. Our line moves the puck well and contributes quite a bit.”

Leonard’s second line has a blend of youth and experience. He plays with sophomore D.J. Petruzzelli (12 points) and senior Dominic Blad (eight).

“Coach Foley started the season by switching up the lines a little bit, but about two weeks ago he put our line together,” said Leonard. “We clicked pretty quickly, and we all keep getting better as a unit. We know where each other is on the ice and have a good connection going.”

There’s no question that Leonard was prepared to play at a Division 1 level skillwise, but the mental and emotional aspects were put to the test in the B.C. High game.

“That game was pretty nerve-wracking, just looking up into the crowd and the atmosphere was intense,” he said. “But it’s obviously a tremendous experience. We had a good 5-on-3 chance there in the third. I got the puck on the point with Jack (Williams) in front, and he was able to get a stick on it and tip it home.”

Leonard’s success in hockey isn’t as surprising as the fact he started playing the game at all. His father, also named John, was a former head basketball coach at Manhattan and assisted at UMass. Leonard’s sisters, Alyssa and Brianna, were stars for the Amherst Regional girls hoop team.

“I wasn’t too big into basketball, so my mom signed me up for hockey,” he said. “I learned to skate at 4 and stared playing at 5. I fell in love with the game of hockey and that’s never stopped.”

In the months before the high school season, Leonard played for the Springfield Rifles select team. Foley was impressed with Leonard during a Rifles tryout, then talked to him afterwards about Cathedral. After touring the school, he was sold.

“I liked the school, I liked all the guys on the team, so that’s how I ended up there,” he said. “I knew I had to step up when I got the chance to play. I figured I’d get an opportunity to play, but maybe not as much as I have so far. Coach Foley has shown a lot of trust in me, and I hope to reward him for that belief in me.”

After participating in Amherst youth leagues, Leonard moved on to play for the Springfield Junior Falcons. He’s been a top performer wherever he’s played, but transitioning to the premier high school program in western Mass. was an adjustment.

“I’ve gotten used to playing with older guys now, but the early part of the season I was a little shaky, a little nervous,” he said. “But my confidence has built with each game and each practice, like with many things in life.”

Leonard’s personal goals for the remainder of his freshman season are to make plays and not worry about making mistakes. In short, just going out and playing the game he’s loved since age 4.

For a Panthers squad that reached the Super 8 tournament last season, a state crown is within reach.

“Especially after knocking off B.C. High, our expectations go to an even higher level,” he said. “We need to keep that going. We must work hard each and every day and make each other better.”

ALIGNMENT APPEALS — The Northampton basketball programs will stay in Division 1. Under the proposed four-year alignment beginning next season, the Blue Devils boys and girls teams were slotted in Division 2. Hamp won its appeal on Jan. 9.

The boys won a Division 1 sectional title in 2011. The girls won the state D-1 title in 2008.

“We feel like we have earned the privilege of Division 1,” boys coach Rey Harp said. “We play what we think is the top competition in the area and our league has become arguable the strongest in the area. We’ve been contenders for titles.”

Belchertown won its appeal with the MIAA and its football team will compete in Division 5, instead of Division 4, according to athletic director R.J. Marchewka.

GAMES OF THE WEEK — Spalding Hoophall Classic: Four local teams take to the Springfield College court today and Friday during the first two days of the basketball showcase. The South Hadley boys team plays Sabis today at 4 p.m. and is followed by Lenox and Smith Academy boys at 5:30. On Friday, Renaissance and Belchertown tip at 3, followed by the South Hadley and Granby girls at 4:30. With victories, the South Hadley boys and Smith Academy can qualify for the postseason.

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