LEWISTON — It sure looked like a punch to the gut, and from a distance, it felt like one, too. The three-goal lead for the Waterville Senior High School hockey team was gone the second York’s Jacob Martin’s tight-angle shot sailed under the crossbar, tying the Class B final with under seven minutes to play.
It certainly appeared as if the defending champions were in trouble. But if anyone cheering on a Waterville victory at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee on Saturday afternoon was nervous, it wasn’t anybody wearing a purple jersey.
“We all looked at each other and went ‘All right,’ ” forward Justin Wentworth said. ” ‘Now we need one more.’ ”
Unshakable and unflappable, the Purple Panthers made sure what had become anyone’s game remained their own. York had threatened, but in putting up the next five shots on goal, seven of the next eight and three back-breaking goals on the scoreboard, opening up what became a 7-4 victory, Waterville ensured it wouldn’t do so again.
“I knew, anytime some type of adversity happened, they’d bounce right back,” Waterville coach Dennis Martin said. “The determination and the will, we knew that they were going to come back and fight harder.”
It’s called poise, and it’s easy to see where Waterville gets its ocean of it. Nine seniors form the core of the Purple Panthers roster. They’re the team’s best defenders, best forwards and only goalie. They’re the ones behind nearly every big play Waterville makes and every big play it prevents, the ones who put the Panthers ahead and the ones who lead them back.
“It’s just incredible. The leadership that we have with the guys, with everything that’s going on, whatever it is, they just leave everything out there,” Martin said. “They’re going to bring everything they can. Any type of adversity, they work harder.”
They’ve proven it. Against Yarmouth in this same game last year, the Panthers erased a 2-0 deficit before winning, 3-2, in double overtime. As recently as its last game, the B North regional final, Waterville shook off 2-0 and 3-1 deficits against Old Town/Orono before earning a 6-5 overtime victory and a second straight regional crown.
So, tie game, with 6:38 to go? No worries.
“They really don’t panic. There wasn’t a lot of panic in the guys,” Martin said. “They’re veterans … seniors that have been through it all before.”
“I knew that we had it in us,” senior defenseman Andrew Roderigue said. “We just had to push for it.”
The York fans were still buzzing when Waterville went to work on its answer. The Panthers’ forward line of Wentworth, Jackson Aldrich and Michael Bolduc — seniors all — never let the Wildcats breathe, going on the attack and pressuring the York defense and goalie Keenan Gamache. Gamache steered aside Bolduc and Wentworth shots, but couldn’t stop Aldrich, who swooped in from the left, dragged the puck by the crease and buried the shot for a 5-4 lead with 3:34 to play. The charge wasn’t finished, as Wentworth pulled away from the defense, zipped around Gamache from the right and scored to make it 6-4 with 1:23 to play.
“That’s what goes through our head. We get scored on, we go ‘All right. We need one more,’ ” said Wentworth, whose team added an empty-net goal in the final second. “We score to go up one? ‘All right, we need two more. Let’s get it going.’ ”
The senior poise showed itself on defense as well. Waterville blocked 15 of York’s 44 shots for the game and was airtight after the Wildcats’ tying tally, withstanding a power play that took the final 42.8 seconds. Goalie Nathan Pinnette prevented York’s best chance to tie the game again, stopping a shot off a turnover and then keeping the puck out when the Wildcats crashed the net.
“(Pinnette’s) going to come up with a couple of big saves to win a game,” Martin said. “That’s what he’s been doing for us all year.”
The result became sticks, gloves and helmets flying through the air for the second straight season, forming a path leading to another mob scene in front of the Waterville net. It was the moment the Panthers had been aiming for all season, and the one their seniors were determined not to let slip away.
“This team has a ton of heart, and we don’t stop trying and pushing toward our goal,” Roderigue said. “(We) just do what we do. It worked for us all season long, and we came out on top.”
Drew Bonifant — 621-5638