TOWNSEND -- There comes a time when a high school hockey team finally catches its stride.
For the North Middlesex Patriots, it all started with a win at Groton-Dunstable late in the season.
When Mike McCarthy took over the Patriots' head coaching job last season, he inherited a team that was on an upward trajectory. On Monday night, in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Wallace Civic Center on the campus of Fitchburg State University, the Patriots added another notch to their collective belts, capturing its first Division 3A Central Mass. crown since 2006 in a 3-2 win over Coughlin Conference foe, Lunenburg/Ayer Shirley.
"The buy-in has been unbelievable," McCarthy said in the locker room following Monday's win. "It's been one big jumble with the guys who are in our line-up. They fight for their spot. There has been that teamwork and fight all year long -- that's what makes us competitive. There's a lot of fan support for NM sports, and it is not just hockey."
North Middlesex out-shot Lunenburg/Ayer Shirley, 32-25.
North Middlesex senior forward Ryan McCarthy potted the game-clinching goal for the Patriots at 9:04 of the third period on the man-advantage.
"All of NM has been rooting for us -- it is really nice to play with that kind of support," McCarthy said. "It is just a wonderful school to be a part of. It feels amazing (to win the title). I have been working towards this since I came in. It is just great.
North Middlesex senior goaltender Ryan Twomey stopped 30 shots in the win -- none bigger than the Danny Baldino blast he steered aside in the final 20 seconds.
"Right now, it is surreal," Twomey said on winning the 3A CMass. title. "It is definitely a great feeling. Teamwork was the key. We are just a bunch of grinders for the most part. We have the heart and effort to win the games. They (our defense) were great in front of me not allowing any two-on-ones or breakaways."
North Middlesex senior defenseman Miles Massidda capitalized on an odd-man rush and blasted a wrist-shot from the point to beat Lunenburg/Ayer Shirley goalkeeper Alec McNamara at 11:47 of the first period.
Josh Miller was credited with the assist. North Middlesex senior defenseman PJ Dupre gave the Patriots' student section "The Trench" a little something to savor before the end of the period. With 47 seconds remaining in the first, Dupre coasted down the right wing and swiftly shifted the puck under the stick of McNamara to put the Patriots up, 2-0, at the end of one.
Lunenburg/Ayer Shirley junior center Danny Baldino was a little banged up at the start of the second period, but he battled through the pain.
Lunenburg/Ayer Shirley head coach Eric Short said Baldino was hampered by a thigh injury.
Lunenburg/Ayer Shirley senior right wing Kevin Cowdrey put an end to Twomey's shutout dreams with his goal at 12:46 of the second period.
Blue Knight defenseman Mike LaManna mailed a wicked blue-line snap-shot toward Twomey, and Cowdrey pounced on the juicy rebound and scored to trim the Patriots' lead to 2-1.
Ryan McCarthy's powerplay goal looked to be the back-breaker for the Blue Knights, but Baldino had other plans. Baldino redirected an errant shot by Josh DeFazio and beat Ryan Twomey to bring the Blue Knights within two. Baldino had a shot to tie the game with 20 seconds left, but Twomey shucked his shot wide right, and the defense cleared the puck to clinch the Patriots' berth in the State Finals at the MassMutual Center in Springfield. For a full recap and photos of Thursday's State Final with Wacconah, visit Nashobapublishing.com/sports.
"We beat an unbelievable team over there," Mike McCarthy said of the Blue Knights. "Overall, it was just an outstanding effort by our guys. The resurrection of the program started when Coach (Brendan) McNabb took the team over. He really got the attitude of the hockey program going in the right direction. Without him, you don't get this. I was lucky to take over a team that he knew was going to be fantastic."