Pope Francis boys hockey team still aiming high despite youth

  • Belchertown’s Zachary Buffone leads the Pope Francis boys hockey team with eight assists. The sophomore is in his first year playing varsity for the Cardinals. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/POPE FRANCIS

  • Easthampton’s Ryan O’Leary skates on the top line for Pope Francis’ boys hockey team. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/POPE FRANCIS

  • Easthampton’s Ryan O’Leary skates on the top line for Pope Francis’ boys hockey team. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / POPE FRANCIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/27/2022 6:12:56 PM

The team looks different. The format looks different.

Yet, the results remain largely the same for the Pope Francis boys hockey team. The Cardinals, perennial Super 8 contenders as Western Massachusetts’ only Division 1 boys hockey team when that tournament decided the state’s best club, are 6-4 and have won four of their past six games. They were ranked sixth in the MIAA’s latest Division 1 power ratings, which will decide both who qualifies for this winter’s statewide tournament and their seeds.

“For whatever reason we always seem to be in the top five, top six, top eight teams in the state. I think that’s where we are now,” Pope Francis coach Brian Foley said. “I think earlier in the season it may have been a question mark for some people, even on our team.”

The Cardinals have reached the past three Super 8 finals in 2018, 2019 and 2020. There was no state postseason last winter, but Pope Francis did win the USA Hockey Division I High School National Championship last April. Now, with no Super 8 due to the switch to a statewide tournament, the Cardinals will chase a state championship through that avenue.

“We’re not treating that as any change. We want to be in the final eight, which means there’s your Super 8,” Foley said. “What I like in a statewide tournament is the first two rounds are going to be hosted at the higher seed. We go from always being on the road to hosting one or two home games, which has never happened in the history of our program to play a home playoff game at the state level. To me, that trumps the Super 8.”

Pope Francis features a younger roster than the program is accustomed to with 11 underclassmen, including seven sophomores. It includes more first-year varsity players than previous squads. Three contributors hail from Hampshire county: Easthampton twins Ryan and Sean O’Leary, juniors, and sophomore defenseman Zachary Buffone of Belchertown.

Ryan O’Leary plays on the Cardinals’ top line with the team’s leading scorer Josh Iby (14 points) and Jack Moltenbrey, who is tied with Iby for the goal lead with seven. The Easthampton native has scored five goals with two assists. 

“He’s one of our top forwards. Plays in all situations, power play, penalty kill well-rounded player, as good offensively as well as defensively,” Foley said. 

Buffone leads the Cardinals with eight assists but doesn’t have a goal yet. He’s still tied for third on the team in points.

“One of many sophomore first-year varsity players that are playing tremendously well for us,” Foley said. “As they gain experience, each and every week they continue to get better.”

Sean O’Leary floats back and forth between varsity and junior varsity for Pope Francis.

The Cardinals next face Austin Prep, ranked No. 5 in Division 1, at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Forest Park’s Cyr Arena.

“We’re playing our same difficult schedule every year and having some success,” Foley said. “I think we’ve got a chance to move up (in the rankings).”

LEONARD MAKING MARK ON TEAM USA – Amherst’s Ryan Leonard would have been a junior on this year’s Pope Francis squad but instead opted to play for the USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.

The Boston College commit is officially on the U-17 roster but has also played 13 games for the U-18 squad, facing college-level competition on occasion. He has six goals and seven assists in 21 games for the U-17 squad and four goals and one assist in U-18 games.

“You expect him to achieve in every single situation he’s in,” said Foley, who coached Leonard for two years at Pope Francis. “That speaks to his ability and maturity as a player to play up and play well.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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