- HNIB News
City squad posts first victory in over five years
The days leading up to the start of the winter season can be a trying time for any high school hockey coach. With more and more kids opting for private schools or to play junior hockey, there always is the lingering question of how the team will shape up and who exactly will be on the ice for that first day of practice the Monday after Thanksgiving.
But for most teams the players all are under one roof, or maybe at two or three different schools, in the case of co-operative programs. For instance, in the Boston City League, traditional power Latin Academy has its own program while defending champion East Boston previously had some players from hockey hotbed South Boston.
Then there is the John D. O’Bryant School, which joins Latin Academy and Eastie as the last remaining programs in a Boston City League that one time had as many as a dozen teams. Nowadays, what few players remain from many of those schools come together from various corners of the city and pull on the blue, green and white O’Bryant jersey.
For Joe Natola, the routine has been much the same for the dozen seasons he has been coach of the program. The challenge is scouring the city and trying to cobble together the pieces from a pool that now includes 18 different schools in the Boston Public Schools system.
“My first year I had a goalie and five skaters to start the program,” said Natola, who took over the team when it was being hosted by Snowden International. “I was new to coaching, so I wasn’t 100 percent sure how to go about getting the kids.”
This season Natola says he has his biggest roster yet, a total of 26 players with a wide range of experience and ability. Many hail from O’Bryant, which took over as the host school for the 2010-11 season.“Some of them have never played the sport before, they just want to try it,” Natola said.
Adding to the challenge is that the team gets only two 50-minute practice blocks a week at Steriti Rink in the North End, and given the various class schedules at the team’s many schools, often Natola will be missing as much as half the team on a given day. But his philosophy is that the commitment to the team deserves reward, and he will try to get every player into every game, “even if it’s just for one or two shifts,” he said. Natola said the city also allowed him to set up some junior varsity games this season to get some of the younger and more inexperienced players some ice time.
One thing that hasn’t been an obstacle, according to the coach, is the Tigers’ relative lack of success on the ice. Entering this season, O’Bryant’s last victory was Dec. 26, 2011, a 7-5 decision against Mystic Valley. That all changed Monday night, when the Tigers rolled to a 13-5 victory against New Bedford at Matthews Arena to end their drought. Senior Justin Barcelou had a historic game for the Tigers with seven goals and an assist. Barcelou and his brother, sophomore Jake, both are newcomers to the team this season from Academy of the Pacific Rim.
“It was long overdue,” said Tigers senior Jonathan Cooper, who attends the Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion School. Cooper was a seventh grader the last time O’Bryant tasted victory and is the lone holdover from that squad. “I knew we always had it in us because we have good talent on this team.”
Said Natola: “They loved it, they loved it. They went out and buried the goalie at the end of the game to celebrate, they felt really good about themselves.
“I’ve got to say, even though we have not had a win or a winning record, the kids don’t get discouraged. They show up game after game, pretty much practice after practice.”
Others certainly have noticed the competitive spirit and attitude of the players in the program. Last March, O’Bryant was one of five boys teams from across the state honored with the MIAA’s James Mulloy Sportsmanship Award, presented on the ice during the state finals at the Garden.
Natola already knows he will lose his team’s five seniors — Cooper and Justin Barcelou, along with Thomas Peak, Kenny Mei and Evan Montgomery. With seven more players in seventh or eighth grade, the next challenge always will be to try to keep the core of the team together.
“We’ll see if maybe this can jump-start us a little bit,” said of the win against New Bedford.
Regardless, Cooper said his players won’t let anything cause them to lose sight of the big picture.
“We’re all here to have fun, that’s the big goal,” he said.