This is a printer-friendly version of an article from Zip06.com.Article Published January 25, 2021
The Branford boys’ hockey squad won’t get to play for a state title this winter, but the good news is that the Hornets will still get an opportunity to play. And they’re going to make the most of every second that they’re out there on the ice.
On the heels of a 20-win season that saw the team claim its second-straight conference crown, Branford is eagerly awaiting the first puck drop of the 2021 campaign. The Hornets begin their on-ice conditioning this week in advance of the regular season, which can get underway as early as Monday, Feb. 8 in accordance with the winter sports plan put forth by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC).
Branford Head Coach Jim DiNapoli was happy when he heard word that the CIAC was offering ice hockey as part of its winter sports season. Now, DiNapoli enters his fifth year as the Hornets’ head coach.
“I was always hoping for the best, that somehow all the entities involved would find a way to get these kids into their season,” said DiNapoli. “I always kept hope that it would somehow happen, and I’m pleased that everyone did their due diligence to get these kids started. Hopefully, we all get to the finish line.”
With the start of the winter season pushed back by a couple of months, Coach DiNapoli has been communicating with his players through virtual meetings the past few weeks, discussing everything from safety protocols to off-ice workouts to his overall expectations. After meeting virtually for so long, DiNapoli couldn’t wait to get to the rink and see the Hornets lace up the skates.
“We are super excited to get going this week. Talking to the players on a daily basis has reminded me how much I miss seeing them go out there, work hard and develop, and how the system clicks,” Coach DiNapoli said. “I’m really excited to get going, and it’s nice to get back it after a really long break and an abrupt end to last winter.”
Branford finished with an overall record of 20-2-1 for the 2020 winter season, winning the SCC/SWC Division II Tournament for the second year in a row with a 1-0 victory versus North Haven in the title game. The Hornets entered the Division II State Tournament as the defending champions and notched a 5-2 win over South Windsor in the first round, but the rest of the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to pose problems across the sporting world and beyond.
Branford has graduated several key players from last year’s team, but Coach DiNapoli knows that his returning athletes are going to cherish their chance to compete, because they’ve seen how the season can finish in an instant.
“It’s sometimes hard to comprehend what a coach is trying to convey when they say, ‘Play every shift like it’s the last shift you’ll play,’ but these kids literally experienced that last year. So, I think they’ll appreciate every day at practice, every shift that gets to be taken,” said DiNapoli. “I think all the players in all sports will really appreciate it every time they go out to compete, because it got cut short last year, and they understand that this can happen and that it’s a possibility in the world we are living in.”
Connecticut’s hockey squads are slated to play a 12-game regular season this winter, followed by a postseason experience that will feature league tournaments instead of state tournaments. While he wishes that the Hornets had a chance to grab the brass ring like they did in 2019, Coach DiNapoli believes that the circumstances of the past year have put things like playoff titles into a different perspective.
“You’re always out to compete and compete to win, but the dynamic of 2020 and 2021 is so different that the appreciation of the process has to be first and foremost. The goal kind of transcends tournament play a little bit this year,” DiNapoli said. “The goal is to be grateful that we are able to do this right now, that we are able to get out there and be together at a rink and compete together as a group. That is the most important thing. If we do get a tournament—and we all we hope we do—that is a bonus. We would look forward to it, and it would be a nice way to close out the season.”
Branford features seven athletes in its senior class, including a trio of four-year varsity players who will lead the team as its captains. The Hornets’ senior captains are goalkeeper Jared Yakimoff, winger Declan Ross, and alternate captain Sawyer Moriarty, a center.
Yakimoff is in his fourth season as Branford’s starting goalie. Last year, he earned All-SCC/SWC Division II First Team honors and was also named the Most Outstanding Player of the Division II State Tournament.
“Jared is just a seasoned leader on and off the ice. He has been in big moments, and he’s prevailed in those moments,” said DiNapoli. “I took forward to seeing Jared have the best year that he’s had in his career at Branford.”
DiNapoli also feels confident that Ross and Moriarty are going to do a solid job of leading the Hornets from the captain’s helm.
“I expect a lot of leadership out of Declan. He is a mature young man, a good leader, and works real hard. He sets a good example for the younger guys,” DiNapoli said. “Sawyer has been a great role player and a steady contributor, especially the past two years. We expect him to play a big part in our success.”
DiNapoli added that he expects Branford to receive quality leadership from all of its seniors, and he realizes that’s more important than ever as the team embarks on an atypical season. Branford’s other seniors are winger Connor Erickson and defenseman Finnegan Thompson, along with defenseman Billy Linder and winger Dan Farricielli. Erickson and Thompson are both four-year players for the Hornets.
“They’re all great kids, all good leaders,” said DiNapoli, whose assistant coach is Chris Annino. “It’s a little different for them with communicating about different things than they ever have and about protocols they have to adhere to and following the rules in place to continue our season, but these guys are just great for that task and will do a really good job.”
Branford features a large corps of sophomores that’s headlined by Matt Morgan, a center, and Mike Farricielli, who is slated to move up to forward after playing defense as a freshman. With the Hornets having graduated so many players from last year’s team, Coach DiNapoli feels that the upcoming season offers an opportunity for some new faces to make their mark in Branford.
“I think we’re a mix of veteran leadership and young talent that we are looking to develop. And that is a little different than the last few years, where we walked in with experience and depth. Now, the sophomores have to develop and create the depth,” DiNapoli said. “Everyone on the team will have an opportunity to go out there and shine. It’s a good opportunity for all the classes to show the coaching staff what they can do.”
In the end, DiNapoli believes that Branford’s veterans can mesh with the up-and-comers to produce another successful season. However, in this day and age, success won’t necessarily be measured by wins and losses.
“In a normal season, I would say the goals are the compete for a conference title and a state championship,” said DiNapoli. “This season, I just want us to compete hard in every single practice, go to the rink and enjoy what’s in front of us, and let the wins and losses take care of themselves. But we’ll go out and compete hard day in and day out.”