WATERVILLE — Sitting in the front row of the bleachers at Alfond Rink, Tom Tibbetts thinks for a minute. As is his trademark move when he’s deep in thought, he tucks a strand of his hair behind his left ear, even though he’s recently morphed a formerly fine head of hockey hair into a mullet. It’s part of the odd culture for the Waterville/Winslow hockey co-op to do all sorts of weird things to their hair during the playoffs — from dying to cutting to contorting facial hair into oddities of all types.

And then Tibbetts turns, certain to make eye contact with you, and leaves no mistake about his seriousness.

“I like to say we’re close to being brothers,” Tibbetts said of teammate Ben Grenier. “He’s grown up quite a bit.”

The Kennebec RiverHawks’ senior goalie has turned the team from a very good one last season in its first as a co-op into a regional title contender this year. Grenier, of Winslow, boasts the only save percentage in Class B North above .900 (.910) among netminders who appeared in at least half of their team’s games this season. He’s also tied with Old Town/Orono’s Kohle Parker for a league-best 2.36 goals against average to go alongside his three shutouts.

Considering Grenier didn’t even play during his junior year, the numbers inspire awe. They’re also a significant reason No. 2 Kennebec heads into its Class B North semifinal Saturday afternoon against No. 3 Presque Isle with confidence.

“It was like he jumped right back in and hit the ground running,” Kennebec coach Jon Hart said. “You could see early on that (having a year off) gave him some life back. I think it worked for him. I think there were some doubters, and he’s proved them wrong to this point. It’s been a big thing for us.”

Winslow High School would not allow Grenier to play last season, he said, because he encountered off-ice legal trouble prior to the start of the season. He was with the team very early in preseason before no longer being allowed to participate.

“It was a driving without a license charge,” Grenier described, matter-of-factly.

Tibbetts’ belief that one of his best friends turned a corner in the natural evolution of adolescence is significant. Nobody in the RiverHawks dressing room knows the goalie better than Tibbetts, who grew up playing the game with him. Hart said he’s seen nothing but an athlete focused on his game and doing whatever it takes to help the team win.

“It was nice to regroup, get a year off, and get your mind right,” Grenier said. “It shows you how much you really love the game when you’re away from it like that. It felt good to come back and get back on the ice and do what I love.”

Grenier showed no signs of rust early in the season, either, posting consecutive shutouts to begin the year. As if the RiverHawks themselves were making sure Grenier would knock the rust off, he faced the fourth-most shots in the league — 413 — but allowed only 37 goals. Part of the heavy workload came from Kennebec’s overhaul of its blue line, first testing young talent within its defensive corps before moving former forwards John Evans, Cooper Hart and Zack Menoudarakos — all upperclassmen — back to play defense alongside senior Hunter Brown as the year wore on.

As a result, the RiverHawks allowed just 18 goals in total over their last nine games of the regular season.

“I feel like we have the best goalie in the league,” Tibbetts said. “We trust him. We trust our goalie, and that’s a big thing with hockey — you have to be able to trust the goalie. If you don’t have a good goalie, you’re not going to win.”

“Goaltending’s been a constant for us,” Jon Hart said. “Goal-scoring has come and gone at times for us, and with our defense we’ve moved a lot of guys around throughout the year. You look back to the beginning and the only thing that’s been a constant has been Ben.”

And, it turns out, Grenier’s game is still as good as — if not better than — it was when he was a promising sophomore for Winslow’s last season as a standalone team in 2016-17. Seven times this season he made 25 or more saves in a game, and four times he turned in 30 or more. In games against Presque Isle on Dec. 28 and Feb. 5, he made 31 and 33 saves, respectively, as the two teams split their season series.

“I’m confident in myself as a hockey player that I can make those first saves, and if the defense can clear those first rebounds, we’re going to be a hard team to beat,” Grenier said. “It’s my job. I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to do my best and work my hardest every day, and I expect the same thing from my teammates. That’s what we’ve got to do every day. That’s what it takes to win.”

As well as what it takes to make up for lost time.

“For sure,” Grenier added. “I feel like if I was on the team last year, we were a team that should have been states-bound. I feel like I kind of let the team down, so I wanted to prove myself this year.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC


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