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Beverly boys’ hockey team off to a perfect start

Beverly’s Kevin Lally (No. 3, center) hugged goalie Tim Birarelli amid the celebration of the team’s 3-0 win over Danvers last Saturday at Salem State College.
Beverly’s Kevin Lally (No. 3, center) hugged goalie Tim Birarelli amid the celebration of the team’s 3-0 win over Danvers last Saturday at Salem State College. Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

Just minutes into the first period of Saturday night’s matchup between Beverly and Danvers at Salem State College, a line change set the tone for the night, serving as a microcosm for what has been a phenomenal 7-0-0 run for the black-and-orange clad Panthers.

As Beverly’s first line jumped back onto the ice, a big hit on Danvers led to senior captain Andrew Irving swiping the puck away. He dashed down the ice while edging away a defender to his left, and swiftly snapped a one-timer past Danvers goalie Alex Taylor for the first score of the game.

If an onlooker blinked, he may have missed the entire sequence, showcasing the elements of speed, strength, and skill that contributed to Beverly’s unbeaten start.

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Although the Panthers netted two more goals in the second period, the first tally was enough, thanks to the stellar play of sophomore Tim Birarelli , who registered a 30-save shutout, his fourth whitewash of the season.

“He’s been playing great for us, really standing strong in net,” said senior captain Tom Lingren of Birarelli, who allowed just five goals in the first seven games.

In their unbeaten start, Beverly recorded back-to-back shutouts against Saugus (7-0) and Peabody (6-0) in December, and a 4-1 victory after Christmas to win the Cape Ann Savings Bank Tournament.

While the Panthers have posted consecutive 16-6-1 seasons — losing to eventual Division 2 state champion Tewksbury in the semifinals two years ago and a heart-breaking 5-4 first-round overtime loss to Saugus last season — they’ve come out blazing with a different type of edge this season.

Head coach Bob Gilligan  describes his team as “pretty solid” with “some skill guys,” but notes the Panthers are still a young team with only two seniors on the roster.

Gilligan is fairly humble though, and, to be honest, “solid” may be selling Beverly short.

Quite often, a team rallies around a cause, be it a player sidelined, an ailing fan or a relative, and the result can be a special season that can change the culture.

Beverly is rallying around Gilligan, its respected 10-year coach.

Despite the program’s recent success, the Panthers’ start is nothing to scoff at, and it becomes even more impressive when one considers the plight of Gilligan, who considers himself fortunate to still be around.

Two years ago, during a routine physical, the then 57-year-old Gilligan, a self-described “life-long athlete who keeps himself in shape,” was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer.

“It came out of the clear blue,” he recalled, “but I ended up going through it very well. The doctors were amazed.”

Gilligan, whom Irving describes as “mentally strong, motivational, and hyper,” pushed through the disease, never missing a game all season and directing the Panthers to the state tourney.

He thought he was cured, but eight months later, he started having headaches. Upon examination, doctors discovered the cancer had returned, this time spreading into the bone marrow and spinal fluid in the back of his brain.

Gilligan was suffering from nerve damage that impaired his vision, speech, and ability to swallow.

“I have trouble tying my shoes,” explained Gilligan. “If you had seen me last year . . . what I do for a living, you’d be a little dumbfounded.”

With the very real possibility that the team would be without its head coach, the Panther captains had to prepare for the unknown.

“It’s definitely a big concern,” said junior captain Connor Irving , Andrew’s cousin. But we have a good relationship with [assistant coach] Justin [Shairs]  and the other coaches. We were confident. We know how coach Gilligan is — he never stops fighting. It was known he would try to fight through it.”

The captains were not alone in their concern. Boston Bruins assistant coach Doug Houda learned of the coach’s health, stopped in at practice, and presented Gilligan with his own Bruins’ jersey.

“My family, the community, the hockey kids, the athletic department, and the administration — the whole city and hockey people in general have been tremendous,” said Gilligan. “It’s given me something to push for when they didn’t think I was going to come out of it six months ago. I’ve been very fortunate.”

Gilligan, one of 10 children growing up, always stressed to his players how important it was to appreciate your parents, your ability to play hockey, and waking up every day.

“Life changes pretty quickly. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it happened to their coach and they got first-hand experience about what the heck is going on here with somebody like me,” he said. “The one thing we stress is that you look at the other side of life and I look at it like this: ‘I’m still fortunate.’ ”

Gilligan views it all as just another challenge.

“It’s a little hurdle you’ve got to get through in life, which I do, and I try to stress that with the kids — you know, adversity. There are things in life that aren’t always going to go well, but these are things we can overcome.”

Gilligan has not missed a game this season, despite undergoing a stem cell transplant less than two months ago. “I just go the way I normally go,” he said.

Lingren said proudly, “He’s not letting cancer beat him. He’s mentally strong and keeps us as strong. We know if we just bear down mentally then we can do it too.”

“It’s definitely great motivation if he can be out there with us at practice,” Connor Irving added.

The team’s goals are pretty simple, according to Andrew Irving.

“Win the [Northeastern Conference], keep winning all our games, win the state championship game and get to the Garden. Keep winning for coach.”

After losing season, Reading girls rock

A year ago, the Reading High girls finished 3-16-1.

This season, the Rockets started 6-0-1. And they have done so with an explosive attack, outscoring foes 39-8, including back-to-back drubbings of Framingham (10-0) and Wilmington (11-0).

“This year, we’ve been blessed with four really outstanding freshmebn: Caroline Seibold, Ali O’Leary, Tori Grimmer, and [goalie] Kayla St. Pierre,” said Reading coach Michael Golden.

“It’s about a bunch of young kids getting a ton of experience and blending in some really high-end freshmen. We needed a goal scorer and found one in Ali O’Leary. We needed a stable defenseman and found one in Seibold. You add those four pieces to a young but experienced group and its led to the quick start we’ve been off to.”

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