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  • Greg Lederer

Cheshire Ice Hockey Caps 50th Season With State Title

Updated: Apr 18

From top left: Cheshire ice hockey celebrates their first state title since 2011; Rams hold up the Division II plaque; Drew DePodesta and Evan Vasiljevs skate down the ice against East Haven Co-Op; Ryan Fraser earned two assists in the state final; From left, Ryan Miller and Biagio Pepe pose with their medals; Pepe celebrated after scoring four goals in his final game. Photos courtesy of Michael O'Dea.

by Greg Lederer

Cheshire Sports Media

Heading into the Division II state final on March 18, Cheshire High School ice hockey had already produced a historic season, but the team felt that it was important to end the year with more victory.

Before a sellout crowd at Quinnipiac University’s M&T Bank Arena in Hamden, the Rams accomplished their mission. CHS (top seed, 24-1-1) jumped out to a 4-0 lead and held off a late rally to win 6-3 over East Haven Co-Op (15th seed, 8-16).

Senior assistant captain Biagio Pepe led the offense with a personal-high four goals. EH cut the deficit to 4-3 in the third period, but Pepe scored twice to clinch the win.

“It feels amazing,” said Pepe, of the championship. “There isn’t another group of guys who I would want to celebrate this with.”

Sophomore goalkeeper Ryan Miller finished with 28 saves.

“Ryan Miller is the best goalie I’ve seen in high school hockey,” stated Pepe. “It helps our defense knowing that he is back there.”

“For a first-year player and a sophomore to have that kind of composure in net and to lead us to a state championship says a lot about him,” added Head Coach Anthony Giusto.

The game represented Cheshire’s first state title in 13 years. In the program’s 50th season, CHS finished with a single-season record 24 wins.

“I talked with the team before the third period and I said ‘guys we’ve done everything we can possibly do to rewrite the Cheshire hockey history book except win a state championship,’” stated Giusto. “You have 15 minutes to accomplish that goal and go down as the greatest hockey team.”

While their rival was seeded 15th in the tournament, Cheshire expected a tight battle in the title game. Back on Dec. 30, EH won the first meeting, 5-2, at Louis Astorino Ice Arena in Hamden, but toward the end of the regular season, the co-op squad had to forfeit 14 games for having an ineligible player and Cheshire was given the win for their match-up.

“We didn’t play our best in that game,” reflected senior assistant captain Drew DePodesta. “We came back tonight with a different game plan and it worked out for us.”

Like in the first meeting, EH came out aggressive, but this time, the Rams withstood their pressure at the outset of the game.

“It was great,” said Miller, who saved the 11 shots he faced in the opening period. “If I can make saves like that, it gives me confidence for the rest of the game.”

The Rams were penalized early for hooking, but after killing off the infraction, the team struck first with 1:01 left in the first period. Sophomore Liam O’Dea passed to Pepe, who powered through a collision against the boards and then skated ahead to fire the puck into the net.

“It felt great,” reflected Pepe. “I thought we can build a lead now. (Ryan) Miller saved those shots for us and then we scored first.”

Cheshire returned to extend their lead with two goals in the opening five minutes of the second. Just 2:18 into the period, senior Ryan Fraser sent the puck up the ice and DePodesta won a sprint to control it and score past EH senior goalkeeper Michael Fritz.

“It felt good to put us up 2-0 and we kept going from there,” recalled DePodesta.

After EH received a pair of penalties, CHS capitalized just 1:45 later on a 5-on-3 power play. Following passes from sophomore Charlie Golden and senior captain Evan Vasiljevs, Pepe netted his second goal on a shot from the outside.

CHS went up 4-0 with 10:23 remaining in the game. Fritz saved point-blank shots by junior Devin Kelly and Fraser, Vasiljevs was able to keep his balance in traffic and score on the rebound.

“That was huge,” said Vasiljevs, of the eventual game-winner. “Ryan put the puck on net and I was able put it back into the net.”

The Rams held a shutout for over 37 minutes, however their rival wouldn’t go down without a fight. In a span of four minutes in the third, EH exploded for three goals.

With 6:09 left, the Yellow Jackets ended the shutout on a power play goal by senior Griffin McGlinchey. Junior Lorenzo Defilio found the back of the net again with 4:27 remaining.

“We knew that East Haven was going to push hard. They are a very, very good team and we knew they weren’t going to go away,” said Giusto.

Miller came up with a clutch save on Defilio with 3:13 left.

“I didn’t see it (the shot) at first, but was able to pick up the puck and make the save,” explained Miller.

CHS looked to change momentum after getting a power play, however, the Yellow Jackets pulled to within 4-3 on a short-handed goal from Defilio with 2:38 remaining.

After seeing their lead shrink to a single goal, the Rams responded in a matter of just 23 seconds. Working behind the EH net, senior Jack Fernicola passed the puck to DePodesta, who then found Pepe for a power play goal in front of Fritz.

“It was absolutely huge. You know you could feel a little bit of tenseness on the bench when they make it 4-3,” explained Giusto. “I was talking to the other coaches and I said I never really got that feeling of being nervous because we scored so quick afterwards. For him (Pepe) to score that quick after them making it 4-3, it got us right back to where we were (of) having confidence to finish the game.”

EH pulled Fritz for another skater, but with the net empty, Pepe sent in his fourth goal with a minute remaining. Despite the late rally by EH, Cheshire finished with a 31-28 lead in shots.

“They (EH) got away from what they were trying to do, which made us successful. We tried to keep them to the outside (and) not let them penetrate into the middle of the ice and then once they started just getting desperate and throwing pucks in the net, we had to adapt to what they were doing,” explained Giusto. “It wasn’t a surprise that they pushed, but it just made the win even a little sweeter having it come down to the wire.”

The state final represented a storybook ending for Cheshire’s senior class of Vasiljevs, DePodesta, Pepe, Fraser, Fernicola, and Keegan Grace.

“It was a special season,” reflected Vasiljevs. “It was an honor to be part of this team.”

“I’m going to miss the team and the coaches,” said Pepe. “We set the bar high and I know that the younger guys are going to keep it going.”

Giusto is proud of what the seniors have done for the program. The group joined the Rams for the first season after the pandemic.

In their sophomore year, Cheshire went 5-13-2, but in the last two seasons, the seniors contributed heavily to a 38-8-1 record.

“This group experienced it all,” stated Giusto. “For them to go out with a state championship, it is a tribute to everything they have persevered through.”

Along with the state championship, the seniors led the Rams to a 7-1 victory over Amity in the Southern Connecticut Conference/Southwest Conference D-II title game on March 1 at West Haven’s Bennett Rink. CHS hadn’t held that title since 2010.

At season’s end, Vasiljevs received D-II and Connecticut Player of the Year, as well as All-State and All-SCC/SWC D-II First Team honors. He was chosen for Cheshire’s Hobey Baker Award, too.

From the Rams, DePodesta was selected for the 13th Greg Schena/Mark Whitlock Award. He also joined Vasiljevs on the All-State First Team.

Golden was named All-State and All-SCC/SWC First Team. Additionally, Miller was the SCC/SWC Tournament Most Outstanding Player.

On the power play, Cheshire ice hockey's Biagio Pepe netted his second of four goals against East Haven Co-Op.

Cheshire ice hockey celebrated their first state title since 2011.

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