Locals key successful first season for Pope Francis girls hockey co-op

  • The Pope Francis girls hockey cooperative wrapped up its first season as a program with a 4-6-1 record. The program includes a horde of Hampshire County natives. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • The Pope Francis girls hockey cooperative wrapped up its first season as a program with a 4-6-1 record. The program includes a horde of Hampshire County natives. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Intern
Published: 3/4/2021 6:43:29 PM

The Pope Francis girls hockey team finished its first season as a program, and it could not have been more of a success. The Cardinals went 4-6-1 in their maiden voyage, competing with some of the best teams in Massachusetts.

“Many first year programs, you don’t see them get their first win until they’re about two years in,” said head coach Chris Connors. “We beat a perennial Division I power in Longmeadow only four weeks into the season and by the end of the season, we were playing our best hockey.”

With the season already thrown into disarray due to COVID-19, and seeing that the cooperative roster had players from all over Western Mass., Connors said his focus was on acclimating his new players. The co-op includes local schools Amherst Regional, Hopkins Academy, Northampton and Frontier Regional.

“We were tasked as coaches to ensure that the number one ingredient for team success was team bonding,” said Connors.

Connors, who has coached both boys and girls hockey, said he felt the season was like no other and the Cardinals were one of his favorites to coach.

“There were no team dinners, pasta nights or locker rooms so they had to get changed in the parking lots,” he said. “Even with all that, they didn’t complain, quit or waver. They just rolled up their sleeves each and every day and went to work.”

The Hampshire County contingent was quite prevalent for Pope Francis in its first season as a program. Assistant captain Sara Wright is from South Hadley, while captain Morgan Peritz is from Palmer but previously played on the Amherst Regional boys hockey team prior to joining up with the Cardinals.

Mary Styspeck (Hadley), Lila Roche (Frontier Regional), goalie Rowan Howe (Northampton), Eleanor Jacoby (Amherst), Brooke Weinman (Amherst), Grace Sands (Granby) and Nadiya Champigny (Granby) all have local ties.

“It’s a huge geographical area this team comes from,” said Connors. “Out in the Boston area, the co-op towns are 10 to 15 minutes away from the school. Out here, it’s an hour and a half variant.”

For Peritz, it was a positive change to be playing on an all-girls high school team.

“Being on the boys team was completely different,” said the junior. “I felt that I didn’t have as much of a connection with them in terms of friendships. Being on the all-girls team made it all the more fun because I connected with my teammates more quickly.”

One of the biggest challenges for the Pope Francis team was adjusting as a particularly young program. Seven of the squad’s 18 players were freshmen, though Connors said he did not hold back from sticking the rookies right out on the ice.

“They were thrown right into the line of fire,” said Connors. “In fact, we had two freshmen that played with our junior captain [Peritz] on one of the top lines. We had four freshmen who had a regular shift on the ice, which is pretty impressive for varsity hockey.”

Peritz said she tried to make sure she was setting an example for the younger players.

“I constantly reminded them that they needed to put all their effort into the game and that this was not club hockey anymore,” said the junior. “I wanted to make sure that they knew we were playing for something and that someone like me only has two years left.”

With multiple freshmen starting, Connors said he was blown away at the veteran style of play the team employed, particularly in tight games.

“We showed a lot of moxie,” he boasted. “There were games that we were tied or down, and this group, even with no seniors, knew what it took to win these games and you typically see that on veteran teams with a lot of upperclassmen, not a first-year program.”

Peritz had never been a captain during her three years playing with the Amherst program but was named captain at Pope Francis during the season. She said it was a welcomed adjustment.

“I realized that the team pays a lot more attention to what I do both on and off the ice,” she said. “I had a good talk with Coach [Connors] and he told me that you should definitely be having fun but the minute that you get off track, so does the whole team. After that, I kicked myself into gear and made sure that I was a role model all the time.”

Though Connors took the season very seriously and wanted the team to improve, he always reminded his players about how important this opening season would be in setting the tone for the future of Pope Francis girls hockey.

“I tell them that years from now, they will joke about this year,” he said. “They were instrumental in laying the building blocks for this year and they are going to ride off into history.”

Good news for that future is the roster has no seniors, so both Connors and captain Peritz will have the luxury of welcoming everyone back for next season.

“I’m so happy about that,” said Peritz. “With no seniors, we don’t have to start fresh next year. We may have more freshmen come in, but we’ll be able to start right where we left off and keep the momentum we had going at the end of the season.”

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