Prior to the program’s scintillating skate to the MIAA Division 1 semifinals last winter, the Shrewsbury girls’ hockey team had enjoyed modest success. The Colonials had been a consistent postseason participant. But Shrewsbury never managed to break through its first round or quarterfinal matchups.
So what was the difference in 2021-22, and continues to shape this season’s 10-0-1 start?
“We moved to the [Merrimack Valley Conference/Dual County League] last year . . . we play 12 league games and it’s like playing 12 playoff games,” said 15-year coach Frank Panarelli. “The intensity of the game has just been phenomenal.”
In league play, the second-ranked Colonials have pulled off wins against some of the state’s best, including a 3-2 decision over previously-unbeaten Lincoln-Sudbury and wins over D1 powers Haverhill/Pentucket/North Andover and Billerica/Chelmsford — along with a scoreless tie with Andover Saturday night.
‘This is my 15th year coaching and this is one of the strongest leadership [groups] I’ve ever had.’
Shrewsbury girls' hockey coach Frank Panarelli, on senior captails Kate Vona, Maddie Mvra, Rachel Bunsick and Taylor Ryder
“We have to be prepared and at our strongest every night,” said senior captain Katie Vona. “Our record right now is really good, and last year it was really solid as well, and I think it’s definitely because of the teams we play.”
In addition to their schedule, strength is mirrored in all aspects of the Colonials’ play. Following each game, Panarelli awards one player the “strongest link” award, which is meant to reflect not just contributions on the scoresheet, but overall tenacious play.
“It’s a chain that he gives to the player that he thinks played the strongest during the game,” explained captain Maddie Mvra, “and I really like that because I think it allows us to recognize someone that just really played well and worked hard.”
While Panarelli recognizes the impact of the stiff league competition, he adds that of equal importance to the Colonials’ success this season is the leadership of their four senior team members. While Panarelli would usually split up a senior group of that into some combination of captains and assistant captains, all four of his seniors wear a ‘C’ on their jersey.
“This is my 15th year coaching and this is one of the strongest leadership [groups] I’ve ever had,” said Panarelli.
“I think it was important that we were all chosen together because we’re able to act as one unit and not just like one person who’s in charge,” added captain Rachel Bunsick. “It really helps us kind of keep the team together as a whole and not have it feel like we’re above everyone else just because we’re the captains.”
The senior quartet has been playing hockey together since the third grade, and this well-honed cohesion combines with each girl’s individual leadership qualities to give the Colonials a united leadership front.
“We are all very fair, and we agree on everything,” said captain Taylor Ryder. “We all have a lot of experience being leaders with other sports, so it’s been [an] easy [transition].”
Each captain brings something different to the table. Mrva was converted from forward to defense this season and has netted seven goals, good for first on the team.
Bunsick is called upon in every man-down situation as the team’s most reliable penalty killer. Ryder skates on the first line and is tied for first in points with 13.
Vona has earned the nickname “Big Time,” for her penchant to deliver timely goals in big moments.
“We beat Notre Dame [Hingham] in the quarterfinals last year, and she scored the tying goal to send us into overtime,” Panarelli said. ‘She probably has three or four game winning goals this year. She just scores big goals.”
“My teachers even bring it up to me at school,” Vona said with a laugh.
While the entire Colonial squad has big aspirations for the remainder of their season, Panarelli says his team is taking a day-by-day approach in hopes a winter spent playing with and against the best the state will land them in a favorable position come March.
“Right now we’re playing well, so everyone is coming in wanting to give us our best game,” Panarelli said. “It’s just really fun hockey to coach right now.”
▪ Bishop Stang, ranked 19th in this week’s Globe poll, carries an 8-2-1 record into Saturday’s game against Arlington Catholic, thanks in no small part to senior forward Lexi Yost.
In a Saturday afternoon match against Dennis-Yarmouth, Yost carried the Spartans to a 7-3 victory with a hat trick and two assists, becoming the second in program history to hit 100 career points.
In 11 games, Yost has tallied 14 goals and 15 assists for 29 points.
“She had a really great game,” said Bishop Stang coach Bill Theodore. “She needed five points to hit the mark, and hit it on the last assist to Mikayla Brightman.”
Brightman, a senior center, became the first in program history to tally a 100th point in a 4-1 nonleague win over the Quincy/North Quincy co-op on New Year’s Eve.
Coming into this season, Yost and Brightman both knew the milestone was within reach and aimed to break the drought.
“You walk into the gym, and you see the banner with all the boys on it, and there’s no girls,” Theodore said. “They’ll both be on there . . . they’re the first girls, which is great.”
▪ Pembroke netminder Mia Dunphy backstopped the Titans (8-3-1) to a 2-0 nonleague win against the East/West Bridgewater co-op last Wednesday, making 25 saves and earning her first career shutout. Dunphy, only in eighth grade, splits time in the net with freshman goalie Emily LaVallee.
Games to watch
Wednesday, HPNA vs. Andover (at Breakaway Ice Center, 7:10 p.m.) — The Merrimack Valley Conference foes skated to a 1-1 tie early in the season. They are in a midst of a tight MVC/DCL Large race, where the No. 8 Golden Warriors hold a one point lead on No. 12 HPNA.
Wednesday, Norwood vs Dedham (at Nobles, 8 p.m.) — The Tri-Valley League foes met to kick off the new year, with No. 20 Dedham coming away with the 5-0 shutout. Since then, the Mustangs have been unbeaten and will look to pick up a critical league win against the hot Marauders.
Thursday, Wakefield vs. Belmont (at Belmont Ice Rink, 5 p.m.) — Marauders senior goalie Bridget Gray is 28 saves away from 2,000 in her career, and could attain that mark in this Middlesex League crossover game against Wakefield.
Saturday, Billerica/Chelmsford vs. Methuen/Tewksbury (at Methuen, 12 p.m.) — The two teams are currently separated by just two three spots in the most recent Division 2 power rankings. In late December, Billerica/Chelmsford just edged Methuen/Tewksbury, 2-1, and Saturday’s matchup should be another tight game.
Saturday, St. Mary’s vs. Archbishop Williams (Canton Sportsplex, 7:40 p.m.) — A clash between the top two teams in MIAA’s Division 1 and 2 power rankings, respectively. The two teams could meet again in the final regular season games of the season at the Hingham Showcase in February.
Olivia Nolan can be reached at email@example.com.