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Rivera: St. Mary’s, St. John’s hockey teams played like champions

It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at results and measuring a season based on wins and losses. Sports fans, particularly in this area, hold high expectations for their teams year in and year out. But when it comes to high school sports, sometimes we have to take a step back and recognize that playing like a champion also holds high value. The reality is sometimes our teams are going to come up short (there are only going to be a handful of state champions in each sport). When our teams go down fighting with everything they’ve got, they deserve credit.

That’s what happened Sunday night in the Division 1 North boys hockey quarterfinal between St. John’s Prep and St. Mary’s at Chelmsford Forum. The Spartans were the No. 1 seed and the Eagles were the No. 8 seed, meaning St. Mary’s, from the outside looking in, was the favorite. St. John’s is a young team this winter (freshman Jackson Irving is its starting goaltender) and a few early mistakes cost the Eagles as they fell into a 2-0 hole after two periods. In fact, it was 2-0 Spartans with 3:10 to play before St. John’s scored two goals and forced overtime. Then the Eagles won the game in a shootout, stunned the Spartans and advanced to the sectional semifinal as they sent their fans into a frenzy.

Was this a disappointing end to the season for a St. Mary’s team that prides itself in competing for a state championship every year? Yes, there’s no doubt about that. The Spartans had high hopes for themselves, especially after their season closed in the same round last winter.

St. Mary’s coach Mark Lee and his assistants, who do a first-rate, top-notch job with their program, wanted to be at practice Monday with another game to prepare for. St. John’s had other ideas.

But the Spartans’ shortcomings don’t mean they have nothing to be proud about. Everyone who walked into the arena Sunday night was treated to a game they’ll likely remember for a long time. It was two powerhouse programs going toe-to-toe, hit-for-hit, battling for loose pucks, crashing the boards, and making sure they each left it all out on the ice. When you play your last game of the season you want to make sure it’s your best game. You want to make sure you gave it everything you had and walked off the ice with no question marks and no reservations. The Spartans fit into that category. They watched a 2-0 lead melt in the final three minutes but they kept coming in the two overtime periods. They sent shot after shot in Irving’s direction but by then it was Irving’s night to shine. Irving showed zero signs of inexperience. He rose to the occasion when the Eagles needed him most.

St. Mary’s won’t get a trophy or a banner for what the Spartans accomplished this season. However, there’s a lot to be said about a team that treated its fans to a game worth remembering- even in a losing effort.

The Eagles were just a bit better than the Spartans Sunday and they turned things up a notch when they had to. St. Mary’s didn’t go down without its best punch. Both teams put forth performances that kept fans on the edge of their seats from start to finish. That, in my eyes, is what playing like a champion is all about.

A huge shoutout to St. John’s for staying the course and keeping its a composure in a game that didn’t look like it would end in its favor. The Eagles never stopped playing, never gave it less than 100 percent and never showed signs of fatigue. Ryan Hart’s game-tying goal with 1:31 remaining was scored on pure effort. The Eagles could’ve easily packed it in when they were down 2-0 to the top-seed in the bracket but they didn’t. Now they get a battle with Andover in the sectional semifinal Thursday night (at Tsongas Arena, 7:30 p.m.) and if they can play with the same grit and determination they showed Sunday, they’ll be in great shape.

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