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Newington co-op faces Conard in Div. III state title game Thursday night

Five Canton High players will be on the ice Thursday night when the Newington co-op ice hockey team faces Conard in the CIAC Div. III championship game. From left, Gavyn Munson, Niko Giotsas, Braeden Humphrey, Evan Howard and Ben Fialkievicz.  (Photo courtesy Bethany Blakewood)

It is not quite three years ago that Kristen Howard and her husband, Eric, were among several parents petitioning the Canton Board of Education for permission for Canton players to join the Newington High co-op program.

Kristen and her daughter, Emery, were among the supporters wearing Canton hockey shirts on a warm May evening at Canton Intermediate School. The Board of Education unanimously approved the idea and Canton joined Newington’s co-op ice hockey program the following December.

On Thursday night, Kristen and Eric Howard will be at the People’s Center on the campus of Quinnipiac University in Hamden when five Canton players, including their son, Evan, will dress for Newington co-op as the Nor’easters battle No. 9 Conard (12-10-2) for the CIAC Division III state championship beginning at 6:30 p.m.

It’s the first championship game in a weekend of state title games in boys hockey, boys basketball and girls basketball.

Newington (20-4) is the No. 2 seed in the tournament and will face a Conard team that they beat twice this season by 2-0 scores. But Conard has been surging with 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games, including a 2-1 win in overtime over No. 1 seed E.O. Smith/Tolland in the quarterfinals.

The Nor’easters, who are comprised of players from five schools – Newington, Canton, Cromwell, Manchester and Berlin – are in the finals for the first time since 2013 when Newington won the Division III title for the second straight year. Since 2013, the co-op has added players from Canton and Cromwell.

Canton has five players on the squad this year and they anchor the defensive line. Senior Braeden Humphrey is one of two captains and has five goals and 11 assists on the season while Howard, a junior defenseman, has seven goals and 12 assists. Senior Niko Giotsas, who is one of three assistant captains, has two goals and 11 assists.

Junior Ben Fialkievicz and sophomore Gavyn Munson (1 goal, 4 assists) are also from Canton.

Newington, under long-time coach David Harackiewicz, has been in a co-op program since 2009.

“I think we do a lot of things early in the season to develop that team bond,” he said. “A lot of our players have played with each other in various youth organizations but I think our leadership has been the story behind us pulling together as a five-team co-op.”

Humphrey and Tyler Leavitt (Manchester) are the two co-captains. “We try to make sure everyone that comes into this organization feels included and it is a safe environment,” Leavitt said.

The Canton defenders have helped solidify a Newington defense that had six shutouts this season with starting goalie Jeremy Wagner.

The Nor’easters have also been able to put the puck in the net led by Joshua Grimm (15 goals, 10 assists, 25 points), Harrison Ranger (12 goals, nine assists, 21 points) and Andrew Stribling (9 goals, 13 assists, 22 points).

Newington has outscored their three opponents in the Division III tournament by a 12-5 margin, including a 5-2 win over the Joel Barlow/Weston/Abbott Tech co-op on Monday with Ranger getting two goals and an assist.

Newington ended the regular season with victories in six of their final seven games and won the CCC South championship for the second time in three years. But the Nor’easters stumbled in a 4-2 loss to Enfield co-op in the semifinals of the CCC South tournament.

“We got totally outplayed and I think that was a wake-up call for us,” Harackiewicz said.

Humphrey agreed. “That reminded us that we’re playing for each other and not just to win. We’re playing for (to cover) each other’s back. We didn’t do that in the Enfield game. So that got our engines going. Now we’re thinking about how we can help the guy next to us.”

Conard is playing with confidence. After a third straight loss, the Chieftains came together to demand more of each other as players and finished the season with five wins in their last seven games.

“They’ve believed 100 percent all the way through the season,” Conard coach Jason Olson said. “They’ve never wavered from it. They just continued talking about winning states. They never quit believing.”

Olson said his team’s defense has been solid all season and sophomore goalie Garrett Selstad has been an overlooked rock star.

Conard won their semifinal game in dramatic fashion when Brian Fehl deflected a shot from teammate Nick Paolitto with 1:43 remaining to beat the Brookfield/Bethel/Danbury co-op, 2-1.

The Chieftains are making their third state championship appearance but their first since 1996.

CIAC Division III state tournament game
No. 9 Conard (12-9-2) vs. No. 2 Newington Coop (20-3-0)
Where: People’s United Center at Quinnipiac University
When: Thursday, March 17, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: You must purchase them in advance online.
Fan bus: Canton students can sign up for a fan bus to the game that will leave the high school at 5 p.m. Sign up in the CHS office.
Last finals appearance: Newington — 2013. Beat Rockville/Coventry/Bolton/Lyman, 1-0 in Div. III final; Conard — 1996. Beat East Haven, 6-2, in Div. II final
Record in championship game: Conard 2-0, Newington co-op 2-2
Preview video
Stream the game: NFHS Network (subscription required)

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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