WESTFIELD – Methuen-Tewksbury might not be the only team standing in the path of the Longmeadow-Westfield girls ice hockey team next season.
Earlier this week, Pope Francis Preparatory School announced the appointment of Chris Connors as head coach of the inaugural girls varsity ice hockey team, signaling the birth of a new program among the high school sports landscape.
“Coach Connors’ experience, personality, and commitment to the game were all attractive qualities in his hiring,” Pope Francis athletic director John Goda said in a prepared statement made available to the media. “We are excited to offer girls hockey at Pope Francis next year and look forward to growing the program under Chris’ leadership.”
The Pope Francis girls ice hockey team will co-op with Amherst, Chicopee, Chicopee Comp, Frontier, Hopkins Academy, Monson, Northampton, Palmer and Pittsfield.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association is expected to make the co-op official in the coming months.
Connors, an Agawam resident, served as boys varsity head coach at Saugus High School from 2005-10 where he rebuilt the Sachems program and took them to the MIAA Division II state tournament in ’08 and ’09, and a second place finish in the competitive Northeast Conference during those seasons.
Connors also currently coaches the Springfield Rangers Mite Select team and has coached various levels from Peewee to Midgets for Saugus Youth Hockey.
Connors shared his enthusiasm for the opportunity to coach at a school like Pope Francis Prep.
“There is a deep sense of pride and a commitment to excellence that is prevalent throughout the school and in the community, which is definitely appealing to me,” he said. “Our goal is to attract hard working, high character, team oriented female student athletes, and to stick with the process to take our girls program from inception and grow it into a championship program here in Massachusetts.”
Longmeadow High School girls ice hockey head coach Melissa Vandermyn is no stranger in building something.
Vandermyn and former head coach Dave Pelletier consistently led Longmeadow to the Division 1 state tournament. The Lancers’ championship quest was cut short by Methuen-Tewksbury in four of the last five seasons.
“We formed a rival with Methuen because they are a top team in the state, and Shrewsbury before them,” Vandermyn said. “As long as (Pope Francis) is competitive and we’re competitive, we’re going to build quite a rivalry.”
Coach Vandermyn said she is open to scrimmages, and if Pope Francis immediately enters the fray as a varsity divisional opponent, the contest will be more of a “friendly competition” as several of the female student-athletes know each other through youth leagues, camps, and offseason activities.
Longmeadow currently co-ops with Westfield, West Springfield, East Longmeadow, Ludlow, Minnechaug, and Sabis. The Lancers co-op with Frontier, Hopkins, and Chicopee has expired.
“To give girls the opportunity to play hockey and add another program is outstanding,” Vandermyn said. “There are so many girls playing hockey with Longmeadow – the only game in town in Western Mass. …This (new Pope Francis co-op) provides the opportunity for players from other schools.”
Vandermyn said the challenge for co-op sports programs is getting talented players to mesh as one.
“You have talent and you can teach a system but you can’t teach camaraderie and bonding,” Vandermyn said. “You are pulling players from schools that are far apart from each other. There are later practice times, you need to possibly entertain some neutral sites for games, and you have to find practice sites taking into account that some girls are traveling further.”
No matter what challenges lie ahead for Longmeadow or Pope Francis, girls hockey in the western part of the state just got a boost.