In the first few weeks of the 2011-12 season, the Warwick girls’ hockey team stayed close with perennial powers Bay View and La Salle.
The Lady Titans lost only 5-4 to the three-time state champion Bengals and then fell 2-0 to the Rams.
To the casual fan, it might have come as a shock that Warwick, in its sixth year of existence, could hang with two of the top teams in the state.
It wasn’t a shock to the Lady Titans.
“This year we’ve surprised some private school teams,” junior Emily Fox said last Saturday. “We knew we were good. Everyone recognizes us as a threat now instead of just an easy win. It’s good to go against La Salle, Mount and Bay View, and have them being worried to lose to us, finally.”
There may not be a team in Rhode Island that isn’t at least a little bit worried when it takes the ice against Warwick these days.
As a program, Warwick has never been stronger.
By defeating Lincoln on Saturday, it improved its record to 7-3 and set a new program record with that seventh win. In just 10 games – and with six still remaining – the Lady Titans surpassed the mark of six wins they set in 2006, their first year as team, and matched in 2007 and again last year.
None of those years, though, have felt remotely like this one.
Currently, Warwick sits in second place in the DeCosta Division. Barrington/Mt. Hope/Portsmouth leads the Lady Titans by a point, but it has also played two more games.
“We’ve got a lot of good freshmen this year,” senior Jacqui Lyman said on Saturday. “It’s really nice. I’m a senior, and through all the years we’ve kind of been off and on. This year we have a really strong team.”
There isn’t a shortage of factors as to why this is the year that Warwick has put it all together, and it’s certainly easy to find the obvious reasons why the Lady Titans have been so good.
They boast an elite offensive player in Fox, whose 14 goals and 27 overall points are both second in the state.
A strong freshman class, led by Abby Ellis, also added a spark to the roster. Ellis has quickly established herself as one of the top freshmen in the state with 13 points to-date.
Even other coaches, such as former Warwick head coach and current Lincoln assistant coach Kevin Chronley, can see how good Warwick’s on-ice level of play has become.
“It’s just a blast to see the level of talent and the number of girls and the way they’re executing,” Chronley said. “It’s a great thing to see.”
But the real reasons for success go much deeper than just talent.
When current head coach Dave Tibbetts took over the program last season, he saw a group of girls that had potential, but were still very raw.
“They needed a lot of work, just basic skill development,” Tibbetts said.
With limited ice available around the state, Warwick had only two days of actual practice time per week to try to build the team up.
Tibbetts decided more had to be done.
It started with the Warwick Co-Op Booster Club, which raised enough money to get the Lady Titans an extra day of ice time during the week.
To complement that, the team latched on with a few other squads when it couldn’t get open ice of its own.
“Mondays we didn’t have any ice, so last year we would skate with another team –we skated with Bay View quite a few times and Cranston, too,” Tibbetts said.
Naturally, there were times when that didn’t work out, but Tibbetts had a plan for those situations as well.
He started classroom sessions with the team, where they would go over positioning and watch instructional videos.
A lot of it was basic, but necessary.
“We taught them things like, what does it mean when you pinch, what does it mean when you forecheck, different types of forechecks,” Tibbetts said. “Just kind of hockey 101.”
All of the teaching and extra ice time has paid off.
Warwick now has players who know what to do and when to do it.
“We talk a lot about hockey IQ, being a smart hockey player,” Tibbetts said. “You don’t have to be the best hockey player on the ice. But if you’re smart, you can compete with anybody. If you know what to do and when to do it, it works. We try to do a lot of game situation stuff. When certain situations come up in the games, I don’t have to scream and yell from the bench. They know what to do. They know what the situation is.”
On Saturday, all of Warwick’s hard work and improvement came to the forefront.
The Lady Titans had surrendered the tying goal to Lincoln late in the third period, but drew a power play with just under a minute to play.
Tibbetts called a timeout, and afterwards, his team returned to the ice with added intensity. With five seconds remaining in the game, Fox tallied the game-winner and Warwick set its new high-water mark.
“It’s just a very good accomplishment,” assistant coach Ryan Henderson said. “The team should be very proud of that. As coaches, we couldn’t be more proud of them slugging it out every period to get the win.”
While everybody was happy to get to seven wins, there is quite a bit more out there for the taking.
All of Warwick’s remaining games are against teams below it in the standings, except Barrington/Mt. Hope/Portsmouth, which it will take on to end the season on Feb. 18.
But looking even further down the line, this season could be just the beginning.
With a thriving girls’ hockey program in the local Warwick Junior Hockey Association, headed by La Salle girls’ head coach Sean McNamara, the city of Warwick has found itself with one of the top feeder programs anywhere in Rhode Island.
As strong as this year’s freshman class was for the Lady Titans, it might get even better going forward.
“I think next year we’re really going to see the fruits of their labors,” Tibbetts said. “There’s supposed to be some really good players coming up in the next couple years. We have a few this year, but there’s more behind them.”
The next goal for Warwick is win a playoff game, something it has never done in its six-year history.
It figures to either get one of the top two spots in the DeCosta Division playoffs, or the fourth spot in the Emma Division playoffs – based on outperforming a team from the Emma Division – and should be in line to make some noise.
For the first time ever, there is a winning feeling around the program.
“Everyone knows that it’s definitely a more competitive team,” Fox said. “You can see it at every practice. It’s a lot of fun.”