Last season the Lowell Catholic Crusaders went 9-8-4 and made the D2 State Tournament but there was more work going on behind the scenes to set things up for a big move this season.
“It was a group effort,” said Crusaders Head Coach Aaron Crear. “Everyone from our administration was onboard with the move up to D1, from Athletic Director Jack Fletcher who worked closely with the MIAA to our principal Maryellen DeMarco. Everyone believes in this team based on last season.”
Coach Crear called last year, his first at the helm, as a “proving ground” for the Crusaders. Despite competing in the Catholic Central II Conference in the MIAA’s D2 last season, their schedule was teed up with a number of D1 teams from CCL Large. Some of these opponents included Austin Prep and St. Mary’s Lynn twice, in addition to Archbishop Williams, Arlington Catholic, Matignon, Mansfield, Walpole and St. John’s Shrewsbury.
As a former D1 assistant coach (Central Catholic), Crear was encouraged by what he saw all of last year. “We played competitively against the D1 teams that we will be playing against this season in the CCL Large. All but two of those games we kept it close, we defeated Matignon twice and tied three others. Our performance really solidified the need to make the move to our AD: it showed that we can compete and that we were ready.”
It certainly didn’t hurt that the Crusaders last season were led by two big senior seasons turned in by forward co-captains Alex Graves (31 points in 14 games) and Connor Doherty (31 goals and 40 points in 14 games).
“Connor had a phenomenal year: whichever college coach gets him is getting an absolute steal. We talked to a few college teams on his behalf but he was great for us. Both Connor and Alex were the senior leaders – they were a part of the D2 Championship team in 2017 and they were a huge help for our younger guys in playing against the D1 teams last year. They showed the whole team we can compete against these guys, even as a D2 program.”
Coach Crear was also quick to point out that the move to D1 would not have gained quite as much momentum without his predecessor who worked to build Lowell Catholic’s hockey program to its current level of success with seven consecutive CCL Small Conference titles.
“Tom Curran built this program which I took over last year. He built Lowell Catholic into a state title-winning team quickly after starting the program in 2008-09. Last year he stepped down and it was a job that I was interested in because he had started to pave the road to D1 by putting those teams on the schedule before I even applied. I was surprised that they were taking on D1 teams and having a true hockey guy as experienced as Jack Fletcher as your AD – that’s what sold me on coaching the Crusaders.”
The program also just landed its first D1 NCAA commitment in Andrius Kulbis-Marino, a four-year Crusader defenseman (and D2 Champ in 2017) who is headed to Sacred Heart in 2020-21.
“Andrius is a great sign of growth for our program: any time that you can prepare players for the next level – it makes others in the area want to see what our program is all about. He actually comes back during the winter break to skate with our players as a school alum. They see him competing at a high level and that drives them to get better.”
But, despite all of the momentum built up over the past eight seasons, now there is a new challenge for Coach Crear: getting his players ready for the move up and replacing the contributions of Doherty and Graves.
“Our biggest challenge is the obvious one: replacing nearly 50 goals between Connor and Alex from last year. But, we are expecting our upperclassmen to step up to help fill that void: senior forwards David Morey, Nick Pereira and Noah Mills should be able to step in as both leaders and scorers for us and we have a great defenseman coming back in Mike DiBacco, who had a big year for us as a junior. Last year’s freshman class was strong for us and we have another one coming in – that should aide our depth.”
A new season with a new challenge also means hitting the reset button mentally as he pointed out.
“This year we need to change the culture to be: ‘We’re here now and we belong here [in D1]. We have to get over the mental block of being the challenger. We have a good group of players, now we have to get right mentally and learn to win at this level.”
Clearly the transition to D1 has led to more than just excitement from people within the program as well with Coach Crear noting the increase in interest in the program locally both from fans and from players.
“With this move to D1, we feel like we can get more kids to come play for us and continue to build on the success that we’ve had at the D2 level. The numbers we’ve had at our open houses has gone up and more people are starting to reach out to learn about the school.”
Some of the interest is surely based on the team’s success, the championships, the success of the school alums, but it’s also a new option for local players who call Lowell home as Coach Crear puts it.
“I grew up a mile from this school and if the hockey program had existed when I was playing? I would’ve gone there if I had the chance.”