Sports

Natick High boys’ hockey program earning respect

Natick goalie Mike White guards the net as Catholic Memorial's Jack O'Hear tries to force the puck past Natick's Jack O'Connor.
Natick goalie Mike White guards the net as Catholic Memorial's Jack O'Hear tries to force the puck past Natick's Jack O'Connor.Credit: Jon Chase for the Boston Globe

NATICK — The third-string goalie on a high school hockey team often tends more to the equipment than he does his on-ice performance. He’s a boost to the bench’s water supply. His stick of choice is a No. 2 pencil with a clipboard.

Third-string goalies don’t usually make 58 saves against the most successful hockey program in state history.

Mike White  did.

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He’s no longer the third-string goalie at Natick High.

“That goalie is going to win them some games,” Catholic Memorial coach Bill Hanson said after his team had just set a program record by firing 100 shots, 62 of them on net, Saturday night, yet scored just four goals against Natick.

The 4-0 loss for the Redhawks was disappointing, but there was a feeling that something special happened.

Catholic Memorial took a bus all the way out to William L. Chase Arena to play Natick. Hanson’s mighty Knights don’t play just anyone. And public schools? Good luck. CM played five public schools in a 19-game season last winter, and three had Super 8 appearances on their resume.

“Probably a little stubbornness on my part,” Hanson said of his usually demanding schedule, which he has tried to lighten, but his idea of an easier list of opponents would still make most coaches queasy.

Natick may have started the winter 0-1. But there’s little doubt that it was the most important season-opening game in program history.

“That says something about where our program is headed,” said fourth-year coach Karl Infanger . “I’ve been trying to build a program where you have to play the Catholic Conference schools, but they won’t play anyone that will hurt their strength of schedule.

“So it’s taken a few years to build a program high enough to gain a respect enough for some of those big-time teams.”

The Redhawks were a losing team when Infanger took over in 2009. They’ve been to the Division 1 South sectional tournament each year since.

Last year’s run to the Division 1 South final, after finishing the season 8-8-4, put their school on the radar of Hanson and other area coaches.

Following the sudden death of senior Justin Bailey in January, Natick put together one of those magical postseason winning streaks that lessen the importance of experience and talent compared with heart and hustle.

“They were playing for something a little more than just their school,” Infanger said.

Natick also had stellar goaltending from Bay State Conference All-Star Derek Kwok . It had the commitment from the coaching staff and mutual commitment from the players. And it had two great talents.

Andrew Newis  and Matt Kustra  combined for 37 goals and 69 assists, almost half of the team’s scoring output.

Newis graduated, but Kustra, a lacrosse player who happens to be just as good on the ice, returns for his senior year and could be the difference between a visit to the TD Garden and putting the equipment away early.

Kustra did not play Saturday. Neither did senior defenseman Andrew Watkins, who was healing from a concussion. His loss forced the speedy Derek Butler  to play on the blue line.

But when it all comes together for Natick, it looks like one of the rare public schools that could make a splash.

“Most people think last year was a fluke,” Butler said. “But I think last year is something to build on. We know what we have the potential to be. We have to work for it.”

And then there’s the team’s senior goalie.

White spent last year as the relatively unknown third-stringer, who teammates say was usually quiet.

His recent experience comprised one period for Natick High last winter, and split minutes in one game per week with the town team this fall.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he said. “I was excited to see what I could do.”

Infanger says White has looked inconsistent during the preseason, perhaps unfocused at times, though the talent is certainly there.

It was like he was bitten by a radioactive spider before Saturday’s game.

Three times in six minutes, White stopped breakaway attempts from Catholic Memorial’s Liam Coughlin, a senior from South Boston who is getting recruited by Hockey East colleges. White stoned point-blank one-timers. He was near-perfect on first-chance efforts, only getting beat when the constant attack around the crease became overwhelming.

“He just rose to the occasion,” Infanger said.

Natick has the pieces. It’s a public school with sights set on prestige.

Others can take note: Shoot for the stars, and you might become one.

Four story lines to watch

 Can St. John's High replace Kevin Emmerling ?

The answer is an emphatic no. Coach Brian Murphy  isn’t in the business of replacing a once-in-a-decade high school player who posted 26 goals and 30 assists in 26 games last year. And Emmerling’s linemate, Vince D’Amato, who scored 23 goals and 15 assists, left for the junior hockey ranks. But Murphy has a talented defense led by Brian Nelson  and goaltender Mario Pizzeri, a pair of juniors. “Now you have to go back to teaching and coaching,” Murphy said.

 Will Hudson play a more conservative style with the loss of most of its offensive firepower?

Probably not, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. Coach Mike Nanartowich  isn’t in the business of playing for ties, and with goalie Shane Barry, a very technical netminder with spontaneous athleticism, the Hawks can afford to take chances. “I’ve seen teams in the past run trap systems and do this other stuff,” Nanartowich said. “I say, ‘Let’s go out and play the game. We’re going to go after them.’ ”

 Was Bedford High's resurgence a fluke?

Mark Fontas  led the program to its first tournament berth in 26 years and first Merrimack Valley Conference/Dual County League title, going 10-0 in league play and 18-5 overall. And his team is young. The squad’s returning all-star goalie, Abe Grainger, could be the difference-maker. “On paper we’re better,” Fontas said. “We have the makeup. We haven’t done anything yet.”

 Will the TD Garden be friendlier to Franklin?

The Panthers have bused players and fans into Boston for two straight years only to come up empty in the Division 2 state championship game. Promising freshman Justin Miller  left for a U-16 team, and the offensive load will fall on Cam Curley, who scored 24 goals in 25 games. “If he has success,” said coach Chris Spillane, “we’ll have a good year.”

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