When crosstown rival Austin Prep knocked off Reading in last winter’s Super 8 Tournament, there was undoubtedly a collective sigh of relief from 11 hockey programs in the Middlesex League.
After years of dominance by the Red and Black, Reading finally appeared to be destined for a season of mediocrity. Coach Mark Doherty and Co. was forced to say goodbye to 16 seniors. The remarkable run of the Reading Rockets as one of the premier public school programs in the state seemed destined to end.
The only problem is that Reading missed the memo. The Rockets didn’t know they were supposed to fall off.
“You just coach who you have,” said Doherty, now in his fifth year leading Reading after taking over for his late father, Peter Doherty.
“We knew [the turnover] was coming. We knew we had kids coming up from JV and we had a pleasant surprise with some freshmen that have been able to help us.”
Despite the immense roster turnover, Reading has assumed its familiar perch near the top of the Middlesex Liberty. With one league game remaining — at Woburn Monday evening — the No. 17 Rockets (11-8-2) sit second in the Liberty with a 10-3-2 record and 22 points in league play. Just ahead of the Rockets sits Winchester with 23 points in the league, but no league games remaining.
Sitting a game in hand, a win over Woburn Monday would give the Rockets their fourth Middlesex Liberty title since the league split in 2010.
“I’d like to think we’re gelling as we speak,” Doherty said. “With a lot of new guys, it took me a while to figure out who to play with who, and all that other stuff.”
The Rockets were red-hot to start the season, but hit a bump once they hit the middle of January. Four points in only seven games against the likes of Winchester, BC High, Watertown, Hingham, and Melrose sent Reading to the middle of the pack in the Liberty and hovering around .500 overall.
But once the bleeding stopped, the Rockets began to gel as Doherty had hoped they would. A 6-1 victory over Stoneham snowballed into a pair of wins over Belmont and a win over Lexington.
After suffering a heartbreaking loss at the hands of Arlington, Reading notched arguably its most important win of the year Wednesday night — a 6-3 shredding of Winchester that lifted the Rockets over the Sachems into the lead of the Liberty.
Winchester then defeated Belmont, 10-0, to reclaim the Liberty lead, but Reading will have the final say in what has evolved into the most competitive Middlesex League that Doherty can remember. Across both the Liberty and the Freedom, seven teams are within three points of each other in the standings.
“No, no. Not at all,” said Doherty when asked if he has ever seen the Middlesex so tightly contested.
“It’s a lot of depth with, if you will, pretty good teams. I didn’t think anyone was awesome this year in our league, but we’re all pretty good. Everyone just kept knocking everyone off. It was pretty unique. Very unique, I think.”
Doherty’s young group has found its stride of late, but his seniors have been the foundation for success this season. Four of the top five scorers on the Rockets are seniors, led by alternate captain Jake Barbera (15-15—30) and Michael Thomson (15-12—27). Captain Robert DiLoreto has been the team’s Swiss Army knife as it transitions into a new core group, while goaltender Ian Lapham has manned the crease to the tune of a 2.25 goals-against average in his first season in the starting role.
Though they are one of only two public school teams to ever win the Div. 1A tournament, there is little Doherty and the Rockets can do to improve their résumé for Super 8 discussion this late in the season. That doesn’t matter to him now. The goal every year is to chase a title. Whether it’s Div. 1 or Div. 1A, the goal for the Rockets is to be there at the very end.
What the Rockets can improve on, however, is their standing in the Liberty division. A league title could serve a dual purpose for Doherty’s team — sending the seniors out on a high note while giving the younger players a taste for success, and what it takes to be successful in a program that demands nothing less.
“You want to keep the culture intact — the success of the program and the traditions and all that,” said Doherty. “It’s very important to get these young guys thrown into the fire. They’ll figure it out. We have good leadership to lead them, and this is a great experience for these kids.”
Century Club makes room
As the regular season inches closer to its climax, several local hockey players have reached personal milestones to put a polish on their successful high school careers.Continued...