Rising to the challenge

Spartan skaters reflect on a memorable season of ice hockey success

The Spartans certainly would not have considered themselves the Cinderella team of the state Division III tournament.

After all, the Shepaug Valley/Litchfield/Nonnewaug co-op ice hockey skaters had evenly battled many D-III opponents this winter.

Yet, just a few years removed from numerous seasons of near futility on area ice rinks, there they were on St. Patrick's Day, skating for state laurels on Yale University's Ingalls Rink in New Haven.

Coach Mike Gorra's ever-improving sextet dueled top-seeded and supremely talented E.O. Smith/Tolland in the semifinals of the Division III tournament.

That the Spartans came up on the shy end of an 8-1 verdict, saved from a whitewashing by Griffin Smith's goal, was not the point.

Shepaug/Litchfield/Nonnewaug was not in the eventual state champs' class, but the Spartans didn't want to hear it.

To the final whistle, playing in the state tournament for the first time in many years, the local skaters gave it their all, just as they had throughout an overall 12-12 campaign.

The 12th-seeded Spartans had earned the state's "Round of Four" spotlight and their chance under the bright lights in New Haven courtesy of state tournament wins March 9 over fifth-seeded Brookfield/Bethel/Danbury, 4-2, at the Danbury Ice Arena and then March 12 with a 7-5 barnburner of a conquest of 13th-ranked Woodstock in Northford.

Those successes followed a 10-10 regular season highlighted by a pulsating, seven-match win skein during one scintillating 17-day stretch in mid-February.

The Spartans were backstopped throughout the season by Litchfield High sophomore Will Slohm.

The attack focused around the mercurial skills of Shepaug senior Andrew Loya and the leadership and versatility of classmate Christian Stuart.

Loya was honored at season's end with selection to the state Division III all-state team and, to top off his Spartan career, he was chosen as the Division III state Most Valuable Player.

He finished his career with 126 points, fourth in Spartan annals to Scott Hunt (203), his coach, Mike Gorra (168), and Steve Price (133).

Loya also is fourth in goals with 77, trailing only Hunt (115), Gorra (85) and Drew DeWitt (83).

The state tournament capped the Spartan skating careers of Shepaug student-athletes Loya, Stuart and Travis Fitch, as well as Nick Ganio of Litchfield High and Drew Benjamin of Nonnewaug.

For more photos, visit www.newmilfordspectrum.com.

Norm Cummings