After losing in the New England Championship Elite Eight Semi-final Round in 2015, the 2016 team entered the season with an experienced defense and depth at every position; expectations were high, to say the least. In an instant, those expectations changed when starting goalie Trevin Kozlowski ‘16 broke his thumb during the first practice of the year. In the ensuing weeks under the direction of coaches Badger and Gorman, the senior captains, Connor Dahlman, Chad Varney, and Kozlowski rallied the troops and kept their spirits high during a tough opening stretch that featured the difficult Avon Holiday Tournament, and games against traditional foes Berkshire and Kent.
The team emerged from the opening part of their schedule 4-4-1 and entered the Watkins Tournament at Cushing Academy in a tough bracket, facing Thayer, Dexter-Southfield, and Culver Military Academy. Trevin Kozlowski returned to action in the first game, and the team took off, beating all three teams in their bracket and Cushing in the final.
Since their .500 start, the team won 22 of it last 24 regular season games, only losing road games to Avon and Salisbury along the way, and for the seventh time in the last eight seasons earned an invitation to the New England Championships Elite Eight, this year as the #5 seed.
In many ways, this team resembled the 2014 team that lost in the Elite Eight Finals against Salisbury. The 2014 team entered the playoffs as a lower seed, played all their games on the road against teams that seemed to have “their number”, rolled four lines of attackers that fiercely forechecked, and rode a hot goaltender to the finals. Unlike the #7 seed 2014 team that blitzed #2 Kent 7-3, steamrolled #6 seed Berkshire 5-3, and played valiantly, but lost in overtime 3-2, against #1 seed Salisbury School. The 2016 team played two hard fought games against the two winningest programs in New England Prep School Hockey winning both on their way to the Elite Eight Championship against #6 seed Milton Academy.
In the quarter-final round, the team traveled to Salisbury School, with about 100 students in tow. The Gunnery’s Noah Williams ‘17 scored to put The Highlanders up 1-0 in the first period. Salisbury scored early in the second period to tie the game at 1, only to have Evan Johnson ‘16 and Matt Danner ‘17 score back-to-back goals to put The Gunnery ahead 3-1 heading into the third period. In the third period, Trevin Kozlowski stood tall in net and the defense killed multiple penalties before Salisbury scored to make the score 3-2 with 13 minutes left in the period. The Gunnery then used the forecheck to pin Salisbury in their zone and kill the remaining time to secure the 3-2 victory. With the win, the team earned the right to play the #1 seed, Avon Old Farms Winged Beavers in the semi-final round.
Avon was ranked first in New England for most of the year, and featured a first line that had no trouble skating through, or around, defenses all season. Bolstered by more than 200 students and countless Highlander fans, some of which were standing four-deep on the glass, the Highlanders would be tested, but would show poise and resilience. The game featured everything you would want in a game, excellent skating, open ice hits, back and forth action, solid forechecking, and great goaltending. Many in attendance described it as an ‘instant classic.”
Avon used the opening faceoff to jump on the attack; just four seconds in they had a breakaway that Kozlowski turned away. A few minutes later Avon scored on the power-play to go up 1-0, and that is the way the first period ended. The second period saw the Highlanders take a 2-1 lead on goals from Daniel Haider ‘16 and Albert Washco ‘17, only to see Avon come roaring back with two of their own and took a 3-2 lead into the second intermission. In the third period, The Gunnery again turned to their forecheck and started to wear down Avon and generate solid scoring chances. At the 14 minute mark, Washco scored his second of the game to tie the game at 3-3. Kozlowski, who had 25 saves during the game, made a few big ones during this stretch to keep the score tied and then Josh Gagne ‘16 scored on a wrist shot from the point to put the Highlanders up 4-3. After Avon pulled their goalie to gain an extra skater, Cam Donaldson ‘16 scored an empty netter to secure the 5-3 victory and a meeting with #6 seed Milton Academy in the finals.
The match-up with Milton featured two teams unfamiliar with each other. While they have some common opponents, they haven’t played each other in over a decade. The Mustangs started the season ranked first, but went through a rough patch in early January and found themselves in a similar position to The Gunnery, needing to win to get into the playoffs. Once in the playoffs, they beat #3 seed Phillips Exeter 5-2, and then #2 seed Kimball Union 3-1 to advance to the finals.
The game started slowly with both teams feeling each other out and looking to get their legs back from the games the day before. The Gunnery took two penalties in the first period, but Milton was unable to convert on their opportunities, and Kozlowski made several excellent saves to keep the game scoreless after the first period.
Milton continued to attack in the second period, and at the 14 minute mark, they were able to put one in after Kozlowski made three point-blank saves in succession to take a 1-0 lead. As was the case in the Avon game, The Gunnery used the goal to start their own pressure, and two minutes later, Cam Donaldson scored on a pass from Gustaf Westlund '17 to tie the game at 1-1. The next 10 minutes saw the pace pick up and both teams generate offense, and, with two minutes left in the period, Evan Johnson scored with assists from Daniel Haider ’16 and Chad Varney ’16 to put the Highlanders up 2-1.
In the third period, the Highlanders again used their forecheck to keep the play in the Milton zone. The team cycled well and generated an opportunity that Daniel Haider ‘16 capitalized on. Haider took the pass from Chad Varney and beat the goalie for the eventual game-winning goal with 15 minutes left in the third period, putting The Gunnery up 3-1. Milton then launched a counter-attack and, after Kozlowski made several acrobatic saves, scored with 10 minutes left in the period to make it a 3-2 affair. Final minutes were a frenetic blur, with both teams skating hard and generating chances that were turned away by quality goaltending. With a minute remaining, Milton pulled their goalie for an extra skater. The Gunnery was unable to clear the zone but played great defense, and Kozlowski made his 25th, and final, save of the night with four seconds remaining to secure The Gunnery's first Division I New England Boys Hockey Championship.