St. Thomas boys hockey rose from uncertainty to repeat state champion

Part II of Seacoast Media Group’s Winter Champions Showcase: Tersolo’s toughness helped the 2019-20 Saints defy the odds

If you had to pick one player to best personify the St. Thomas Aquinas High School boys hockey season, Brendan Tersolo would be that player.

The senior all-state defenseman, captain and four-year varsity performer was sick during the last month of the Division II season, including STA’s run to the D-II semifinals, but refused to come out of the lineup.

The escalating coronavirus pandemic across the world led to the NHIAA’s cancellation of the D-II hockey championship between Keene and St. Thomas on March 14, as well as a number of other tournaments still in progress. On Monday, the NHIAA declared champions in all four hockey divisions, as well as seven basketball divisions for boys and girls, and three in spirit.

Keene and St. Thomas tied 2-2 in the season opener. At the end, they were declared Division II co-champions.

The Saints are repeat champions, having won the program’s first state title in 2019, a 5-3 win over Dover.

Tersolo’s presence was vital in this championship run, declining to let sickness keep him out of the lineup.

“I was just on and off with colds, the flu and stomach bugs,” Tersolo said. “I would be fine for a day or two and then I’d be sick for a week.”

The senior captain felt he needed to be with the team.

“It definitely took its toll on my body,” he said. “There were games that I didn’t have the stamina I usually have. I just had to dig deep and give it everything I had.”

Tersolo’s sacfrice wasn’t lost on his teammates as noted by classmate and defensive partner, Will MacLean. “Him playing through that was amazing,” MacLean said. “You could tell he was hurting. You could tell he was struggling, struggling to breathe, struggling to have long shifts. He pushed through it. That’s the kind of person he is. He’s relentless.”

Coach Dan Strabone recalled Tersolo being totally out of gas during the 5-4 win over Somersworth/Coe-Brown in the quarterfinals. “He dug a little deeper and gave it everything he had,” the coach said.

At that point, before the semifinal game with Merrimack, Strabone made Tersolo miss two practices to recover. “He wanted to show up,” the coach said. “The kid was totally out of gas. He was sick.”

Strabone said Tersolo’s absence was felt during those two days of practice. “You could see it in the locker room before the practices,” he said. “The kid had been to every game for three years. He’s a workhorse. And you look over and the kid’s not there.”

Tersolo was back for Merrimack in the semis, a 3-2 win at Concord’s Everett Arena.

“He played a great game against Merrimack,” Strabone said. “He did everything we asked him to do. He was 80-to-90% He was still sick. Will MacLean and him logged so many minutes. In my opinion, they’re the two best defensemen in the state.”

It was a season of adversity and uncertainty for the Saints — certainly at the beginning.

Going into tryouts, they had to come to grips with the loss of 11 seniors, including D-II Player of the Year Paddy Vetter. Gone was 60% of their offense as well as two goalies.

The void was filled by 10 freshmen.

“If you asked me at the beginning of the season, ‘Do you think you’ll make it to the state championship?’ I would have looked at you like you were crazy,” said MacLean, who will do a prep year this fall at The Winchendon School (Mass.) before attending UMass-Amherst, where he has been recruited to play baseball.

The Saints weren’t in the preseason championship conversation. Those in the know figured they were a middle-of-the-pack team.

“There were a lot of question marks,” said Strabone, who kept coming back to advice friend and last year’s head coach Wayne Sheehan impressed upon him: “Be patient.”

What helped was the most difficult schedule in the division. Not only did STA play 12 games against D-II playoff teams (going 9-2-1), but also two D-I tournament teams in Bedford and Windham, as well as the No. 2 team in Class A Maine — St. Dominic’s.

They played, in addition, three quality games during a holiday tournament in Auburn, Maine, against strong teams from Smithfield, R.I.; Medway, Mass., and the Class A Maine champs from Lewiston. They lost all three, but Strabone said: “We had no rest. We had all hard games. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Those games just made us better.”

On Jan. 22, after a 2-1 loss to D-I Windham, the Saints were 4-3-1.

From that point on they won 11 of their final 12 games to finish the season at 15-4-1 with the most wins in Division II.

“Everybody wanted to win,” Strabone said. “Everybody knew what it’s all about. The freshmen had a learning curve at first. They bought in. They got it.”

Specifically, freshman goalie Britton Dunbar developed into a quality asset between the pipes, while classmates Brendan and Colin Chrisom teamed up with senior Matt Barnes, the team’s leading scorer, to form an efficient scoring line, combining for 82 points.

Finn Connor and Max Murray also provided important contributions.

“There was a lot of pressure on (Dunbar) coming into the season,” Strabone said. “He had a couple of rough starts, but he figured it out.”

Strabone recalled late in the Somersworth/Coe-Brown playoff game, with the score tied, STA turned the puck over on the power play and Dunbar made an unbelievable save to keep the game deadlocked. “He saved the season right there,” Strabone said.

The seniors carried the load, bringing the freshmen along, taking the lead on defense with five defensemen playing in their final season — Tersolo, MacLean, Luke Grella, Dan DeButts and Ryan Pottier.

“Our games were all close,” Strabone said. “We knew we would have good goaltending. We had strong defense, but there was a lack of scoring. We had to play smart in front of Dunbar. We focused on that, and took the offense as we got it.”

How important were the seniors? Barnes netted the game-winner in the final minute to beat Somersworth in the quarters. Grella’s only goal of the season won the Merrimack game in the semis.

Now the Saints can revel in a repeat state championship, minus the SNHU Arena experience.

“There are just things that are bigger than us,” said Tersolo, who will attend Clarkson University this fall and play lacrosse. “It stinks we can’t play in (the championship). It’s nothing we can control. We accomplished everything we could possibly accomplish this year that we wanted to.”

Repeat when necessary.

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