By Mark Behan – March 21, 2013
After dropping six of eight hockey games, the Methuen/Tewksbury girls’ playoff hopes were evaporating like spring snow. Sitting below .500, the Red Rangers (6-7-3) needed to win their final two games to earn a spot in the Division 2 tournament.
Enter Amanda Conway.
Facing Waltham, a team that had previously defeated Methuen/Tewksbury 7-3, Conway netted seven goals – yes, seven – in a 9-4 win.
A Methuen High sophomore, Conway followed up with a hat trick and an assist as the Red Rangers conked Concord-Carlisle 5-1 to qualify for the postseason in its first season as a co-op hockey team.
“The girls came out on fire,” said head coach Kim Bruff. “They proved they wanted to be in the playoffs.”
In fact, since the joint program came to fruition last fall, Methuen/Tewksbury has done a whole lot of “proving” to folks. Led by the prolific Conway and goalie Taylor Lirakis, the Red Rangers not only qualified for the state tourney, but they also forged an implausible playoff run to cap off a historic season.
Before this year, neither Methuen nor Tewksbury had a girls’ hockey program.
When not enough high school girls signed up to play this season, a waiver allowing seventh- and eighth-grade students permission to participate was granted, Bruff said, noting that 7 of 18 players on the roster are middle school students.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Bruff, who did not have any seniors on the team. “I am very impressed with the way the kids came together as a unit. They were excited to have a girls’ team.”
Conway and Lirakis had skated last year with boys’ teams. Conway played for the junior varsity boys’ team at Methuen High and Lirakis was the back-up goalie for Tewksbury High’s varsity squad.
It didn’t take Methuen/Tewksbury long to prove they could skate with more established teams in the Merrimack Valley Conference/Dual County League.
Playing Boston Latin at home in the season-opener – the first game in program history – Conway and 7th-grader Kelly Golini tallied hat tricks while Lirakis had 20 saves in an 8-0 waxing of the Wolfpack.
In the games to follow, Conway posted Gretzky-like numbers (four hat tricks in five games), and Lirakis earned her second shutout (in five games) with a 35-save gem against Belmont, leading the team to a 3-0-2 start.
Commenting on her team’s two anchors, Bruff said: “Amanda is a competitive player who wants to put the puck in the net. She’s driven. Taylor is a solid backbone. She faced 40 shots per game (regularly).”
Over the next month Methuen/Tewksbury played its toughest stretch, including a number of games against Division 1 foes. The team took its lumps, dropping five in a row at one point. Despite the losses, the team’s camaraderie and chemistry continued to improve, the players remained resilient, and the Red Rangers were jelling at an opportune time.
“The middle of the season was tough,” Bruff said. “But the girls had come so far and were continually improving.”
Methuen/Tewksbury (8-7-3) entered the Division 2 tournament seeded 20th out of 22 teams and was poised to play 13th-seeded Norwell in the preliminary round.
Sparked by Conway, who found the back of the net four times, the Red Rangers fricasseed the Knights, 10-3, for their first-ever state tournament victory.
The win earned Methuen/Tewksbury a first-round meeting with No. 4 seed Canton.
Shining in the role of giant killers, the Red Rangers’ streak of excellence continued. Conway recorded a hat trick and Kelly Blackwell and Kathleen LeFebre had one goal apiece in the 7-3 win.
“We played our best game of the season against Canton,” said Bruff.
Methuen/Tewksbury advanced to the quarterfinals against No. 5 Gardner.
Gardner took a 1-0 lead before Hayley Sutherland tied it in the second period. The teams remained deadlocked until Golini scored in the third period. Conway sealed the 3-1 win with her 52nd goal while Lirakis stifled Gardner with 40 saves.
And the Red Rangers’ magic carpet ride of a season continued on to the semi-finals against Duxbury.
Duxbury was the tournament’s top seed, had copped the last two state titles and was as good as advertised. They peppered the net with nearly 60 shots in the 8-0 win. Lirakis had 51 saves. But the dream season was over. One loss and you are done. No second chances.
“Duxbury is phenomenal,” said Bruff. “It was good for our girls to see them since they aspire to be that good.”
The Red Rangers’ future is bright. But as successful as those future squads may be, we will remember the inaugural 2012-13 team that authored the best thriller in sports this winter with its climactic upsets. We look forward to the sequel.
Mark Behan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org