GLOUCESTER — Three years ago, they finished at 3-17.
Before this season started, they were generally thought of as the fourth-best team in their own conference.
But this morning, for the first time in 10 years, the members of the Danvers High hockey team can call themselves Northeastern Conference hockey champions.
"The best part of it all? Everyone has played a role in this," said Falcons captain J.D. Hodgkins, whose third-period rebound goal was the game winner in his team's title-clinching 3-2 triumph over arch rival Gloucester on Saturday night at The Talbot Rink.
Sophomore Tyler Dustin also had a huge third-period goal, and leading scorer Joe Strangie also connected on the power play for the winners, who allowed Gloucester just 13 shots on goal.
"Everyone's bought into the system that the coaches put in; everyone knows their roles and gives that extra effort," Hodgkins said. "And everyone is constantly pushing to better themselves and the team."
The win by Danvers (the first by this senior class in Gloucester), coupled with Winthrop's home loss to red-hot Beverly, enabled the Blue-and-White to finish with a 12-3 mark in NEC play, good for 24 points and two better than both Winthrop and Saugus (identical 10-3-2 league records). Beverly (10-4 NEC) could also finish in a three-way tie for second in the NEC if it beats Peabody this afternoon.
As word of the final score from Winthrop began to seep out Saturday night in Gloucester, some Danvers players started hopping up and down excitedly during a timeout with 56.7 seconds to play. When the final buzzer sounded, there were congratulations, hugs and handshakes all around, followed by some applause and light cheering in the locker room.
It was a celebration, yes, but a muted one, as if this team has bigger fish to catch before the year is done. Call it controlled enthusiasm.
"Coming into the year, you think you can contend always," said Danvers head coach Kevin Brown, who won three as a DHS player (1991-93) and now has one on his head coaching ré©sumé©. "But a lot of things need to work out, you have to stay relatively healthy, and a few breaks have to go your way. And more than anything, the kids are the ones that have to execute and stick to systems and make it all happen.
"Fortunately for us, all of that has happened. These kids really worked hard and stuck to the plan. It's great to see this happen for them."
That word Hodgkins kept using on Saturday night — "everyone" — could very well be the one that best describes this happily improbable Danvers (14-4 overall) hockey season.
With a complete and total emphasis on the whole over the individual, the Falcons have morphed themselves into arguably the deepest team on the North Shore. There's no one player or line that dictates this team's success; if one player is off his game, someone else will undoubtedly pick up the slack.
That was never illustrated better than early in the third period with the game tied at 1-1, when Dustin — who saw three, maybe four shifts the entire game — scored the biggest goal of Danvers' season.
When Hodgkins was sent to the penalty box as part of a matching minor penalty call, Dustin was put on the ice when the teams went 4-on-4. With Gloucester defenseman Coltyn Rivas pinching down low after a Fishermen faceoff win, the puck came out to the opposite point in the Danvers zone. Dustin pressured the point man and flicked the puck away from out of his skates and was off to the races 2-on-0 with teammate A.J. Couto. He flew down the right side, cut in and fired a high wrist shot that beat Jesse Glidden.
"When a big chance was presented to him," Hodgkins said of Dustin, "he made the most of it."
"It was probably the biggest goal of the year for us," said Strangie, the team leader in goals (17) and points (34).
When Hodgkins batted home a Rob Buchanan (2 assists) shot for the second power-play goal a little more than three minutes later, Danvers knew the NEC title was within reach. Gloucester (6-9-5) never rolled over, scoring again with 5:39 to play to keep it close at 3-2, but senior goalkeeper Seth Kamens made sure the hosts wouldn't tie it by making a big blocker save on Rivas from the slot with 20 seconds remaining.
"It's tough not to let it bother you when other people don't believe in you, but we never stopped believing in ourselves," said senior captain and defenseman Nick Strangie. "That's why it feels so good to have accomplished this. But we're not done yet."