AP NEWS

High school hockey New Fairfield, Immaculate hope to close co-op on top

December 15, 2018

New Fairfield High School’s hockey players will be searching for a new home after the 2018-19 season.

But for now they have one more ride in its current co-op before the Rebels and Immaculate Mustangs head their separate ways.

After almost a decade as a co-op program, Immaculate will compete on its own following this year. NFI will compete in the SCC/SWC at Division I with an opportunity to qualify for conference playoffs. But after that, it’s curtains.

A familiar face will guide this transition, though. Mike Bonelli, who won a state title as a player, coached Immaculate from 2002-2009, including leading the Mustangs to a Division II championship in 2010. Immaculate will have a deep roster before and after the transition.

“I wouldn’t have taken the position if I didn’t think we could be successful, and if I didn’t think the administration, the school and everybody involved wasn’t 100 percent buying into what we do,” Bonelli said.

CIAC rules state that once one school in a co-op has more than 14 eligible players — in this case Immaculate — the co-op must dissolve. Instead of leaving New Fairfield’s players in the cold, then coach Larry Vieira — who built NFI into a force in six seasons — kept the program together one more season at the expense of the state playoffs.

“We were upset,” said senior captain Sam Mitchell. “It’s a hard thing to take, but we stayed positive about it. That’s one thing we’ve always done is be positive.”

If there was ever motivation to close the book on a high, it’s now.

“We’re just trying to think that it’s the last time, let’s go out with a bang and all that,” Mitchell said. “We’re trying to do that the best we can. … (The underclassmen) are all with us. They know the future of the program, so they know their plans. They respect NFI; we all have that respect and it’s all working out well.”

NFI competed in Division I for the first time last season, posting a 13-5-3 record against a difficult schedule. Several key pieces are gone from that squad — including leading scorer Alex Hallahan — but enough returns to provide hope of an encore.

An electric top line led by Mitchell and Joe Robinson will be key for NFI, which will likely be in a host of tight games this winter. Aaron Dibble and Ryan Moody, who each scored six times last year, add depth up front. Mitchell, from New Fairfield, is a four-year starter who has more than left his impact on the program.

“I love this team. It’s the best team I’ve ever been on,” Mitchell said. “It’s like a family; we miss the seniors every year, and with the seniors and freshman there’s no barrier. We’re one family and it’s been fun.”

Where will New Fairfield go after this remains uncertain. The Rebels competed on their own prior to the co-op with moderate success before not competing in 2008-09, but with low numbers joining another team or students transfering are on the table.

“It’s hard, but the alternative is not playing,” said Bonelli, who added that New Fairfield Athletic Director Mary Stolle is actively searching for a solution. “Maybe some kids play in a different co-op or maybe New Fairfield has enough kids to have their own team. We can only worry about this year and the kids we have.”

Pieces are there to contend for the Mustangs, particularly in goal. Senior Scott Dobos is off to a solid start to the season in net; NFI tied Watertown-Pomperaug 2-2 before falling 3-1 to Amity, a game that included multiple breakaway saves.

Dobos also thrived in the difficult schedule a year ago, posting a 1.80 goals against average and .912 save percentage.

“I think we have a really good goalie in Scott Dobos,” Mitchell said. “He’s always making real good saves for us; once our offense gets clicking we’ll be good.”

The schedule is nothing short of brutal. In addition to facing all of the Division I teams in the SCC/SWC, NFI will play FCIAC powers Greenwich and New Canaan early in the season. If that’s not enough, the Mustangs will compete in a holiday tournament at the University of Rhode Island.

“It’s a schedule that these kids came here to play,” Bonelli said. “We’re going to learn from these games and play the top teams in the state, and we’re going to grow from it and learn from it. Hopefully, other kids see what we’re doing here and want to be a part of that process.”

rlacey@bcnnew.com, twitter.com/ryanlacey11

AP RADIO
Update hourly