“The only legacy that matters in our program is caring about the possibilities of playing FOR something, rather than just AT a place.”
One of the primary messages Hill head girls’ hockey coach Ari Baum delivers – to both his players and, in his role as Hill’s Dean of Students, to all Hill School students – is the importance of seeing the bigger picture beyond one’s self; to accept the responsibility of adding a new chapter to the always-evolving history books of a 169-year old institution in a way that honors the prior generations of students.
For the 2019-2020 Hill girls’ hockey team, the First Annual Hill Girls’ Hockey Invitational, held from February 21-23, offered the opportunity for the team to cement its legacy in accordance to Baum’s message. In the immediate future, winning the tournament would see the team finish with a final record of 21-3-3, the best record in program history.
On Sunday, February 23, Hill faced off against Culver Military Academy in the tournament’s championship game after winning its first three games by scores of 4-2, 8-1, and 3-0. The Lady Blues held a 5-1 lead after two periods and withstood Culver’s third period push to secure a 5-3 victory in the inaugural tournament, solidifying the team’s place in the School’s annals. In addition to a third-consecutive 21-win season, the team spent most of the season ranked in the top-10 of New England Prep Hockey.
To grasp the full meaning of this season’s success requires the contextual knowledge of a seven-year process in which several players chose to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Long before any member of the current team set foot on campus, four players believed in Baum’s vision of building one of the top New England prep programs and their role in bringing that goal to fruition, and chose to enroll at Hill instead of at a school with a more established hockey program. Those four players – Anne Carroll ’17, Alexis Grippo ’17, Marissa Letizio ’17, and Haley Wheeler ’17 – remained at Hill for all four years, and each year they were joined by more players who strove to be another building block of the program’s upward trajectory.
Those four players were sixth formers when the Class of 2020 arrived on campus as third formers in the fall of 2016 and mentored the incoming group to ensure that the team’s culture would persist. As the team improved each season, the strength of schedule increased as Baum sought the best possible competition, which resulted in the team playing a substantial number of away games. There’s a saying in hockey that nothing brings a team together like a road trip, and with each passing trip, the program’s bond became stronger as the players continued to learn about themselves and what it means to truly be a part of a team.
“From a hockey standpoint, there is no question that it is easier to play at a prep school that plays half of its games at home and travels no more than an hour to away games. But the easier path is rarely the most advantageous,” Baum said. “That is the true legacy of all hockey players and just about all students at The Hill School. Our community fiercely believes in deliberate discomfort as a systematic seed-planting for greater flourishing possibilities, and I feel very confident that the student-athletes who have participating in girls’ hockey over the years have lived that example with great pride and distinction. The only legacy that matters in our program is caring about the possibilities of playing FOR something, rather than just AT a place. This spiritual baton has been passed from year to year, team to team, player to player. None of them will say it is easy or comfortable. I am confident all of them will say that they learned what it means to be a part of something bigger than oneself. In an athletic world that increasingly emphasizes personal successes at all costs, an imperative legacy of The Hill School and its athletic department is the notion that none of individual indicators matter as much what it feels like to be together.”
The experiences of prior seasons had the Hill girls’ team well-prepared for the lofty expectations that preceded the 2019-2020 season. Having won 21 games in each of the prior two seasons, Hill departed the Women’s Interscholastic Hockey League of the Mid-Atlantic (WIHLMA) and instead played a schedule comprised entirely of New England prep opponents. Hall/Eccleston Arena was the site of just five of the team’s first 23 games, and two of the first three contests were against perennial top-10 programs.
“The amount of travel and the strength of competition put down a rather extraordinary gauntlet for our team to endure together,” Baum said. “Even as we still process this season, I can say with great confidence that it was special to be together through all of the travel and across all of the different schools and venues where we were fortunate to play. The season itself, regardless of the results, is incredibly successful, because our student-athletes focused as well as they did throughout.”
On December 13, Hill boarded a bus bound for Phillips Exeter Academy with a record of 1-1-2 through its first four games. Two days later, the team returned home as Exeter Invitational champions having begun what turned into a 12-game unbeaten streak. While a loss to the second-ranked team in New England, Tabor Academy, on the final day of January halted the team’s unbeaten streak, it was evident that the team believed in itself and in each other as the schedule resumed after winter long weekend. The team won five of its next six games to enter the Hill Tournament at 17-3-3.
In the opening round, Hill met cross-state rival Shady Side Academy, a team that historically has been a difficult opponent for the Lady Blues. After a 4-2 victory over Shady Side, Hill defeated Hoosac School 8-1 in the second round to set up a rematch with Shady Side in the tournament semifinal. Another victory, this time by a 3-0 result, sent Hill to the final.
The start of the championship game was far from ideal for Hill as Culver scored just 48 seconds into the game on a shot from a tight angle. Then, five minutes into the game, the Lady Blues were whistled for a penalty. Suddenly, the team faced a critical juncture much sooner than it may have anticipated prior to the game. Hill successfully killed the penalty, and then shortly after tied the score on a Jess Ciarrocchi ’20 power play goal. Less than 30 seconds later, Lindsey Coffey ’20 converted a back-door pass from Caroline Goffredo ’20 to put Hill ahead for good. In the second period, Ciarrocchi scored two goals to complete her hat trick and Allie Corser-James ’20 also found the back of the net. Culver struck twice in the first 57-seconds of the third period, but that was as close as they would get as Hill skated to a 5-3 victory.
For everyone involved with the team – 22 players, three coaches, and two managers – and especially for the 14 sixth form players, the 2019-2020 Hill girls’ hockey season will be especially memorable as Baum’s goal of becoming a premier New England prep hockey program was realized.