On February 12, Walpole’s season was on the verge of going sideways, if not in a complete downward spiral.
The Rebels had just lost to Milton, extending their winless streak to eight games. Even worse, with a 6-8-5 record and three games left, one more loss would have meant eventually putting away the equipment for the final time before February vacation even was over.
Instead, “packing it in” meant getting back to a trademark suffocating defense in front of junior goalie Jack Curran. With three straight wins, the Rebels punched their ticket to the tournament, but still were the 12th overall seed in a 15-team Division 1 South bracket.
Four more wins later, Walpole has the first sectional championship in program history. Senior captain Liam Fisher scored the lone goal late in the first period, and Curran and the Rebels defense did the rest to shut down 14th-seeded Archbishop Williams, 1-0, in Sunday’s Division 1 South championship at Gallo Ice Arena.
“We had to play ourselves into it. We had to win our last three games,” Walpole coach Ron Dowd said. “The kids just bought in and believed in themselves. We just keep saying we want to roll the dice one more time, as the song goes.”
Walpole does have four state championships in the pre-MIAA days, the last coming in 1965. The Rebels will try to add to that storied history next Sunday against either Belmont or St. John’s (Shrewsbury) at TD Garden.
It’s a trip even the 2017 Walpole team, which went unbeaten in the regular season and reached the Super Eight tournament, never got to experience. Fisher was a freshman on that squad, dressing for a pair of late regular-season games.
“They kind of inspired me to be a better player,” the senior captain said. “I got to play with some of the best kids to ever come through Walpole. It may have just been filling the waters, but it was filling the waters for the best team in Walpole history.”
Another driving force from that ’17 team was goalie James Corcoran, who now plays for Merrimack. He has become a bit of a mentor for Curran, a junior who said he moved to Walpole the year after the Super Eight run, but watched from afar as his father is a Walpole native.
“He’s always there to tell me if I’m off my angles or something,” Curran said of Corcoran.
There hasn’t been much “off” about Curran’s game this postseason, or that of the guys in front of him. Walpole has allowed eight total goals over its current seven-game win streak.
“It’s a team effort, it really is,” Curran said. “Our defense has been good. All playoffs we’ve been keeping pucks out of the middle, which has been a huge thing. They’re just making it easy for me to make the saves.”
Fisher is one of those blueliners, but it was his goal with 53.5 seconds left in the first that was the difference. Taking a feed at the left point from Joe Cox, Fisher found a little space and wristed a shot through traffic past Bishops goalie Nic Buccella.
“That was a huge goal,” Curran said. “He doesn’t get a lot of them, but when he does they’re electric.”
Archbishop Williams really cranked up the pressure in the third period, but Curran was there each time. He denied Jack Allen on the doorstep, then made a great save on Conor Kelly from the slot with about three minutes left.
“Some of his saves, I would look back and see it in his glove and my jaw would drop,” Fisher marveled. “Curran’s letting in nothing in this tournament. Our defense definitely has been strong, and he’s the backbone of it.”
Added Dowd: “I don’t know how he stopped them, but I’m glad he did and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Curran made two more stops on Kelly in the final minute, as well as one more on James O’Toole. He finished with 25 saves.
“I thought we controlled the play and their goalie carried them,” Archbishop Williams coach Derackk Curtis said. “(Curran) has been playing like that the last six or seven games and that’s why they have been able to knock off some of the better teams.”
Said Dowd: “We know we’ve got to rely on him. We’re a defensive-minded team, and he’s got to make the saves. That’s what we’re built on, going back to the guy a couple of years ago, Corcoran. We’re built on goaltending and defense, and he’s just carrying it on.”
Now the Rebels carry on their late run for one more game, hoping to make some history that hasn’t been accomplished in 55 years. Could they have believed that not even a month ago?
“Of course we imagined it,” Curran said with a laugh. “That’s the goal all along, isn’t it?”
Said Fisher: “We’ve faced elimination since (mid-February). We know the stakes, they just keep getting higher. We perform under pressure because we’re experienced in that.”