By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
On the left wing and defense, the senior captain of the St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes hockey team, William “Drew” Butler, dreams of attending either Brown University or the University of Virginia and playing club hockey. Another senior, goalkeeper Zachary Phan, came to the sport four years ago after a decade in the frame of a lacrosse goal.
In front of them, sophomore center Max Simpson has played since he was 5 years old, thanks to the influence of his Canadian mother. Simpson’s stick skills were on display at the Kettler IcePlex in Ballston as the Saints saw off the challenge of Bishop O’Connell 5-3, thanks in large part to Simpson’s hat trick and a strong team defensive effort led by Phan.
It improves SSSAS’s record to 9-4-2 overall on the season in the Interstate Athletic Conference and the Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League, where they are top of the A Division’s West conference.
That team-effort mentality and a strong sense of camaraderie has propelled the Saints atop the standings, even with just three seniors and two juniors on their current roster, as well as a general increase in hockey players across the area.
“Ever since my freshman year, we’ve been building and trying to get new players,” Butler said after the game. “We brought in loads of new players and in practice we’ve stressed the little things and doing the little things right.
“In my freshman year, we had maybe two wins and decided that wasn’t good enough, so the coaches have helped a lot, they’re dedicated and get us where we need to be. This year we’re competitive, so we owe a lot to our coaches and to the players who have come before. We’re a pretty small roster, but we work hard and have some highly skilled players and we’re smarter than some of the other teams.”
Phan agrees, and believes that the strong bonds the Saints have forged this season have them well positioned for what could be a possible championship run.
“I think our team really meshes this year,” he said. “We have a great group of guys who are all friends. It’s a great locker-room, we all get along together. It’s a close-knit group this year.”
The team is led by head coach Evan Donnelly and Christopher Miller, both of whom graduated from St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes in 2005. Donnelly has been in charge since 2011, and believes their recent success has come in large part because of the high standards the team sets for itself in both practices and games.
“We just emphasize accountability and doing the little things right,” he said. “If you do the little things right, you come focused and willing to work hard. The rest of the stuff falls into place. We’ll teach them the skills and the strategies they need, but if they’re willing to come and work hard and focus and do the little things, that helps. It’s a family atmosphere too.”
Donnelly believes his three seniors have helped enormously in showing their freshman and sophomore teammates what it takes to be victorious.
“It’s a very young team, we like the future of what we have,” he said. “The seniors are really setting the benchmark and letting the younger kids know what it takes to be a leader and what it’s like to go up against the best teams in the area. The young guys are learning a lot, even though it’s a small senior class, they’re a big part of the team and they teach the lessons to the young kids that they need to learn.”
Butler, who was an alternate captain for the Saints last year and also helms the Northern Virginia Ice Dogs club team, relishes the opportunity to be a leader.
“[Leadership is] fun and is an important quality to build,” Butler said. “The coaches help, I learned a lot from the upperclassmen before me, I can’t say enough about them. It’s been a long road, I’ve definitely learned a lot from the people ahead of me, but it’s nice to be captain here and give back to a program that’s given me a lot.”
The Saints have just four games left on their regular season schedule before the start of what they hope will be successful playoff campaigns in the IAC and MAPHL. While there is still plenty of work to do, the team is hopeful they can be successful.
“I think we can win multiple championships with this team,” Simpson said. “We’ve got a good core of guys and good coaches here.”
“When they play smart and give 100 percent and do the little things right, I think they can play with every team they go up against,” Donnelly added. “We’ve just got to take it one game at a time and see how far they go.”