We’ve reached the end of another season of MIAA hockey and this was one of the most wide-open seasons we can remember. It was quite a ride for Pope Francis, just three years removed from a co-Championship shared during the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, they began the year on the hunt for Western MA’s first trophy in over 70 years. Following a 16-win regular season the Cardinals were named a 4-seed in the D1 State Tournament and many of their games were close shaves. After taking down Bishop Feehan in the opening round 4-1, every other game they played was a 1-goal game: sneaking by 13-seed Wellesley 3-2 in OT, knocking off 5-seed Marshfield 3-2 followed by an instant classic 1-0 victory against top-seeded St. John’s Prep in the Final 4. That set them up for more heroics at TD Garden for the State Championship: the Cardinals would win their first standalone title against Xaverian by a familiar final score: 3-2.
What was one of the most consistent threads through all of these victories? The play of our 2023 Mr. Hockey Award winner: Josh Iby. When the team needed him most, he showed up big: that includes the OT GWG against Wellesley and the infamous GWG with 25 seconds remaining in the D1 State Championship Game at the TD Garden.
The senior captain and power forward has always been one of the stronger and more physical players on the ice in every game he plays, but this year he took his game to another level. Clutch goals aside: he looked a step faster this season and he was taking without asking: bullying his way to the net and he caused fits for opposing defenses as a result.
Following the 2022-23 season we took the drive out to Springfield to visit with Josh as he starts his offseason and prepares for his prep school PG year coming up next season. What follows are the insights he provided us with about the importance of this Championship for Western MA, the motivation of the co-Championship of 2020 and how self-confidence changed his game:
Q: This season was a special one for Pope Francis – thinking back to the beginning of the year, were there goals set early to get to and win at the Garden? Was it talked about at all?
A: Oh 100%, it was fully made known to us that we were obviously a playoff team and if we came together and were able to play together consistently then we would have just as good of a chance if not better than any other team we were going play in the tournament. So we had our eyes locked on the Division 1 State Title since the beginning.
Q: Did you have any indications early in the year that this was a special group? Was there a moment that sticks in your mind?
A: All the way. We had a number of kids who were extremely close both on and off the ice and as much as we were hanging out off the ice, and how close our team was, it builds just that much more chemistry on the ice. We had a lot of kids who worked great together. We even had a lot of younger kids who all had been playing with each other for years on years growing up together. Everything connected.
Q: What does a standalone championship mean for the school and the broader community? How much did the co-Championship of 2020 play a factor in this year’s playoff run?
A: Personally, it was a huge achievement. It felt great, the last Western MA championship was all the way back in 1952. Being a part of a team that was able to bring that back, not just for Western MA but the first ever [Springfield] Cathedral/Pope Francis team to stand alone and hold that title was just an incredible feeling.
We’ve taken the co-Championship, it was definitely an achievement. We would 100%, every single day of the week, rather have gone and battled for the standalone Championship. A co-Champion isn’t really a true victor and doesn’t show a true winner so that was 100% a driving factor for us to win it this year.
Q: Being a player from Western Mass and beating all the teams out East to win the Championship, what did that mean to you and your teammates?
A: Since I can remember, everyone has put Eastern Mass on top and put down Western Mass. But there have always been absolutely phenomenal players and great teams to come out of Western Mass. It’s just that we’ve never been able to fully secure a title to prove that. We’ve come close: been finalists countless years, countless almost wins and being a co-Champion. Just being able to prove that Western Mass is at the same compete level as Eastern Mass when it comes to hockey is a great message to send.
Q: You obviously came up big in the biggest games for the Cardinals (OT winner vs Wellesley + GWG in the title game with 25 seconds left): what do you attribute that to? You seemed to always answer the bell to keep this team advancing.
A: More of those clutch goals were bound to happen because of consistent pressure from our whole team I would say, by outplaying our competition. I am proud to have those goals, but I was confident that our team was guaranteed to get a goal sooner or later and I was able to sneak the two clutch goals in. Plus there was another clutch goal from Petch [Nick Petkovich] against St. John’s Prep.
Q: Speaking of coming up big: can you walk me through the goal with 25 seconds remaining at the Garden? What did you see on that play and what was that feeling like knowing it was the dagger?
A: There was a chipped puck up to me and I saw that we had a 3-on-2 and the way that we were set up there were two guys going (me and CJ [Watroba]). Mossy [Kearney] was behind me. So I crossed the blue line and left the puck for him and took the defenseman out of the way giving Mossy a clear lane. I thought he was going to take the shot, we’ve run that play multiple times in practice, and he may not have the hardest shot, but has great accuracy. He’s great at picking corners. When he didn’t shoot, I snuck backdoor and the D stepped up [on him]. He was able to get both the goalie and defenseman to bite and pulled it over and went backhand to me and the goalie [Cole Pouliot-Porter], full credit to him, he got over there quickly but not quickly enough. I was blown away that he was able to get over there that quick.
Q: There is obviously a history of recent success within the program: were there things you took away from playing with star players (Ryan Leonard, Ryan Shaw, Brandon Spaulding, Matt Hanscom, etc) as a freshman that you used as a senior captain?
A: I would definitely say a big thing that I’ve learned through all the different players [I played with] and my years at Pope Francis: goal scorers are just elite players and a huge part of that is being confident and trusting yourself and your teammates. I’ve had some bumpy moments in my career and a big part of that is that I had no confidence and I started to believe in myself more this year, it definitely has started to come together.
Q: You forged your own path at Pope Francis, and you got the opportunity to play with your brother for two seasons as well: how instrumental was he to your growth as a player?
A: There was one big thing that my brother was known for: he was 110% a grinder. He was a great athlete, he never prioritized hockey but he was an incredible grinder. He had unreal energy and never got tired. He created pressure all over the ice, he was known for causing turnovers and pretty impressive plays that you wouldn’t expect. So that energy level was definitely what I attempted to adapt [into my own game].
Q: Before your four years at Pope Francis, you started playing youth hockey locally in the Springfield area – can you walk me through that journey? I assume the journey in Western MA is quite different from the Eastern part of the state?
A: So the first team I ever played for (super young) was Ludlow [Hockey Association], that was just starting off in hockey. Me and my brother both played to see if we would enjoy the sport because we were playing some other sports at the time. Then we started to get into it and I went to a team called the Jr. Falcons. My brother was on an older team, I was on a younger team and my team was a little shaky for a few years. We had a phenomenal coach: Sheriff [Nick] Cocchi actually. Great guy, great coach, he also coached the 99s team that was a phenomenal team. Then after some years of that, a few of the players from our team joined with the [Springfield] Rifles (now Jr. Thunderbirds) and that’s when I met a lot of the kids that I was going to be playing with at Pope [Francis]. Kenner [Wyatt Kenyon], Leno [Ryan Leonard], [Matt] Hanscom, [Ryan] Shaw (with the Jr. Falcons), and a number of those kids even from my brother’s age [group] when I use to practice with his team. Now summer and offseason teams like summer/spring/fall: those teams were tournament [and] club teams that we signed up for and a lot of kids went for playing with more local teams and going out to play for Blue Chips and stuff like that. But it was just between those club teams for years and then after the Rifles I came to Pope and that was the youth journey.
Pope was definitely where I was looking considering that my brother went there. A lot of people from Western Mass go there for hockey; I was looking around at some other schools but I was really just focused on Pope. Their legacy was too impressive not to follow up on.
Q: For the second time in three years, you also competed at the USA Hockey HS Nationals and won another trophy out in Minnesota – can you speak to that experience and how unique that was to represent the state of MA?
A: That was actually more of a fun, almost lighthearted version of [MIAA] States. I’m sure many people will be able to piece together that States was a lot more competitive in every aspect. But we were able to go out there and just enjoy hockey for another week or so, hanging out with all of our team, all of our friends one last time having fun throughout the days [of the tournament]. Then when it came to hockey we were able to go out and have fun for just a few more games. It was definitely more of an enjoyable experience…winning states was more valuable and memorable, but this was more of messing around and having fun with your friends one last time.
Q: Final question for today: what does the future hold for you next season and beyond? Have you set goals for yourself of where you want to go and what you seek to accomplish?
A: Next year I will be attending Cushing Academy and my goals after that: obviously I would love to play at the next level, hopefully D1 offers. If that doesn’t work out, then I’d be willing to accept it and move on with an academic and career path. But definitely [my] goals are in the athletic world. Right now I’m not looking at any juniors or anything like that: I’m more focused on the Cushing year by itself. However that plays out will lead into what my decision next year will be.