Boys hockey: Late goal dethrones St. John’s Prep and sends Pope Francis to Division 1 title game

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 03-13-2023 3:49 PM

LOWELL – Ryan O’Leary gave himself a terrible view of Pope Francis’ game-winning goal against top-seeded St. John’s Prep.

The forward from Easthampton was setting up for a rebound when Nick Petkovich’s snap shot dribbled over the goal line just past Eagles goalie Brian Cronin with 6 minutes, 8 seconds remaining.

“When I dropped it, I went right to the post. I didn’t see it all that much,” O’Leary said. “I was there to almost get it in if it didn’t go in.”

The game’s only goal dethroned the Eagles, the defending state champions and sent the No. 4 Cardinals back to TD Garden for the state championships for the first time since 2020, though Pope Francis didn’t actually get to go that year after the MIAA canceled all state championship games due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Cardinals were named co-champions and took down the Eagles for that trip, too, the last time they played.

“We have 10 seniors and all of us, not everyone was a part of it, but we all saw it, we all experienced the heartbreak of not being able to get a chance to make it there,” O’Leary said. “It means the world to us.”

Pope Francis (20-2-4) will face No. 7 Xaverian at TD Garden on Sunday at 1 p.m. in the Div. 1 final. The Cardinals fell in last season’s Round of 16 and will be making their fourth trip to the Garden to play for a state championship after appearing in the 2018 and 2019 Super 8 finals, losing to BC High in overtime both times.

“It’s a gauntlet to get through,” Pope Francis coach Brian Foley said. “They were the No. 1 seed for a reason. We were fortunate to get one by their goalie.”

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Pope Francis goalie Nick Ritchie didn’t let one by. He made 26 saves in a shutout. Defenseman Zachary Buffone, a Belchertown native, raced over to Ritchie after the final horn sounded and bear hugged him as some teammates leaped into the glass near the Cardinals student section.

“He played amazing. He kept us in the first period and the whole game, really,” Buffone said of Ritchie.

The Eagles (20-3-1) outshot Pope Francis 15-10 in the first period but couldn’t break through. Ritchie lost the puck underneath him with 7:19 left, but he fell on it to force a face off. That’s as close as St. John’s Prep threatened him the rest of the game, though.

“They’re the defending champs, I thought they were more prepared to impose their will on us. We did a great job of going toe to toe with them, kind of on the heels a little bit,” Foley said. “They caught a few of our guys off guard, and we needed to withstand that.”

Pope Francis did and found its footing in the second period. The Cardinals also received the game’s only power play with 3:58 left in the second period. It was a delayed after a hooking call, and the Cardinals generated even more pressure.

Once Pope Francis broke through, the Cardinals needed to defend their lead.

“Kids were paying with a lot of heart and determination,” Foley said. “It was a really good hockey game. One of the best I’ve ever seen.”

St. John’s Prep pulled Cronin late but couldn’t equalize, setting off Pope Francis’ celebration.

“That was the greatest feeling ever,” Buffone said. “Awesome.”

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