By Michael Hoffer
For decades, the winter sports scene at South Portland High School has been hoops-centric, but the times might be a changing.
Hockey, long the focal point largely of family members and a few die-hard fans, is enjoying great success in 2008-09.
When all is said and done, this could be the best season in program history.
The Red Riots, who improved from four wins to 10 in Joe Robinson’s first year as coach last winter have nearly matched that total just past the halfway point this season.
Even after a 2-1 loss at Cony Saturday, South Portland is a sparkling 8-2 and resides in fourth place (ahead of such traditional powers as Biddeford, Scarborough and St. Dom’s) in the Western Class A Heal Points standings.
“I’m very pleased,” said Robinson, a former standout player for the Red Riots who served as an assistant coach with Cape Elizabeth’s Class B state championship teams in 2005 and 2006. “It’s not just discipline with behavior, which has changed. I teach them certain systems and they do it. They work very hard in practice. They stick to the systems. It’s simple. They want to win. They can see a glimpse now of what it’s like to be respected as hockey players. They come out every day and work harder and harder.”
South Portland reached the playoffs a year ago, but was dispatched by Fryeburg/Lake Region in the preliminary round.
With just three seniors on the roster this winter, the Red Riots knew their future was bright, but this team has come of age even faster than hoped.
South Portland opened with wins over Cheverus, Portland, Noble, Sanford and Gray-New Gloucester, then beat Marshwood New Year’s Day to improve to 5-0. A 3-2 overtime loss at Gorham (which is ranked first in Western A) followed, but the Red Riots bounced back with victories over Sanford and Yarmouth.
In the win over the Clippers last Thursday, the Red Riots got first period goals from sophomore Josh Cobb, senior Nick Fornwalt and sophomore Robert Hannigan to seize control. Sophomore Zach Horton and senior Brandon Martin added goals and impressive freshman goalkeeper Dominic Desjardins turned away 22 shots to preserve the shutout.
“That’s the best game we’ve played yet,” Robinson said. “That’s the best I’ve seen them in two years. I’m very impressed. I was a little concerned coming in, but we worked hard. They should be proud of themselves.”
South Portland has featured a myriad of offensive weapons, led by Fornwalt, who has emerged as a team leader.
“Nick is one of the most humble kids I’ve known,” Robinson said. “It spreads in the locker room.”
Desjardins is quickly making a name for himself. Sophomore Connor Igo has sparkled in his time in net as well.
“Dom’s been great,” Robinson said. “He’s come up huge for us. We really didn’t know coming in. For a freshman, he’s been impressive.”
The Red Riots hosted Bonny Eagle Thursday (too late for this edition). They still have road games remaining at Marshwood, Lake Region, Noble, Massabesic and Deering and home tilts versus Westbrook and Massabesic.
The program record for victories in a season is 14, set five years ago. South Portland could match or eclipse that mark, but the Red Riots have bigger goals. A program which has won only one playoff game in its history has a shot at playing deep into the postseason for the first time.
Of course, there’s still a lot of work to do.
“We’ve been struggling on the power play,” Robinson said. “It’s getting better. I’m going to keep working. We have to be ready for the playoffs. We stepped up our schedule from last year. Hopefully this will allow us to step up next year. Hopefully, we keep playing at the level we’ve been playing. We don’t have the luxury of taking any team for granted. We have to work hard everyday.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com