ANDOVER – In the first week of May, Billerica began experimenting with adding zone principles to its defense. Five wins later, the move has paid off big time.
UMass-commit D.J. Smith had 15 saves while the Indians ‘D’ did a terrific job of keeping Andover’s talented shooters far enough outside to limit damage. Russ Tedford paced the offense with a hat trick and Billerica claimed its seventh consecutive Merrimack Valley Conference title with a 5-4 win over the Golden Warriors Friday night at lovely Stadium.
The win marks the Indians (13-5) 18th MVC championship. Andover shared the title with them in 2004 and 2008, and last won it outright in 2006.
“The MVC is a tough conference and it’s getting better and better every year,” said Billerica coach Craig Flynn. “Andover is a great team, they beat us the first time. Coach (Wayne Puglisi) Pug is doing a great job over there and they’ve got some great players.”
“We made a lot of adjustments going into this game and our defense really stepped it up,” Flynn continued. “We stayed patient but got aggressive when we needed to be on defense and D.J. Smith made a ton of saves today. It was just a great team win. The offense did what they had to do and put enough goals into the net to walk away with a victory.”
Led by poles Sean Fitzgerald, Brian LeClair and Jimmy McLaughlin, along with LSM’s Mike Casey and Eddie Stokes, the unit executed the new-look defense almost flawlessly while holding Andover (12-4) to just one goal at halftime.
“The last few weeks we’ve been implementing another zone defense with a one-slide from the crease,” Smith explained. “We’ve been working on that really hard and today it paid off. We’ve been getting our sticks in the lanes, not letting them get the skips, and we’re keeping them to the outside shots which makes my job a hell of a lot easier.”
Andover took Billerica down in the previous meeting with an 8-7, overtime victory, but Puglisi agreed that the defensive adjustment was a huge difference from the earlier game.
“The zone was perfect for them given how strong D.J. is,” he said. “We were trying to push a little bit in transition and tried to sneak a couple of things in. I don’t think we over-thought ourselves but it just forced us to be more patient and spun some time off the clock. That’s a good second half adjustment for them in the season.”
Billerica also displayed a newfound patience on offense, working on controlling possessions and seeking out the quality scoring chances rather than simply firing away at will. Tedford and freshman Drew Laundry each scored in the first quarter and Kevin Farrell and Jeff Trainor scored in the second around a goal by Andover’s George Cardillo.
Thanks to an Indians penalty at the end of the half, Andover opened the third with an extra-man opportunity and cashed in as Justin Brosnan (two goals) fired in a low rip to cut the deficit to 4-2.
Billerica returned fire as Tedford scored a man-up goal late in the third, then fired a rocket through just 30 seconds into the fourth to increase the lead to 6-2.
“Towards the beginning of the year we made a ton of dumb mistakes, throwing the ball away, but as the year has progressed, we’ve learned how to settle it down more and wait for the better opportunities,” Tedford said. “We had a lot of movement off ball. When people are moving, the lane is open and people are scoring goals.”
The Golden Warriors started using cutters and tried to force the Indians to open up the zone and made things interesting as Hunter Tyrell and Brosnan scored less than a minute apart to close to 6-4.
“We were trying to send cutters in and get guys into spots where we felt like the zone had some weaknesses,” explained Puglisi. “It didn’t play out the way we thought it would, and they made some adjustments, even at halftime during the game, to it. If they didn’t make adjustments then their kids did a great job playing. We saw a couple of things that we still wanted to try and exploit and that’s the stuff that you saw, those corners and trying to get that pole on the sides to spread out a little bit to give us some space.”
Andover had several more chances, ripping off five good looks at the cage over the final few minutes, but Smith came up huge when it counted.
“I was seeing the ball well today,” Smith said. “We were keeping a lot of the shots to the outside and it’s a lot easier to see a 25-yarder than a five-yarder.”