By Jason S Rufner
Special to Viva Loudoun
(March 5, 2014) – Since the earliest days of the Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League — that is, 2001 — the Stone Bridge Bulldogs have been its gold standard. Winners of five Capitals Cups, including the first two NVSHL titles in 2002 and ’03, the Bulldogs ice hockey program has set the bar which other schools aspire to reach.
Now, in the pantheon of NVSHL success stories, the Bulldogs have company — and they don’t have to look far to see it.
Less than five miles away live the Briar Woods Falcons, claimants to the last two Capitals Cups, the second coming just last week — and the remarkable thing is that the Falcons didn’t field its own varsity hockey team until 2009, a year after the Bulldogs captured their third Cup.
Also remarkably, Briar Woods (12-1 this season) had to get through Stone Bridge (11-2) on the path to each championship — vanquishing their neighbors in the semifinals in 2013, and besting them 4-1 in the 2014 finale, held Feb. 28 in front of a nearly packed house at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington.
In that one, Falcons goalie Elliot Shelton was magnificent, stopping 29 Bulldog shots and helping senior-laden Briar Woods withstand five Stone Bridge power plays. Offensively for Briar Woods Zach Regester, Luke Benitez, Bobby VanDusen and Tarek Zagade each put the puck in the net. Regester’s tally was his 24th of the season; Zagade’s was his 22nd.
So the road to the Capitals Cup still goes through Ashburn. Most often, it ends there.
The Stone Bridge program hasn’t gotten any worse. Indeed, this season’s Bulldogs were a young team of three seniors, four juniors and the remaining 14 a collection of talented freshmen and sophomores, such as the highly talented Cade Groton, who combined with leading scorer Nick Kaufman to put in the Bulldogs’ sole goal in the championship game, and Ryan Leibold, behind only Kaufman with 14 goals.
John Lynch, the only head coach Stone Bridge ice hockey has ever had, boasts that nearly 50 players are expected to compete in next year’s preliminary tryouts.
What has happened is that programs like Briar Woods — and Langley (last year’s runner-up who scared Stone Bridge in this year’s semifinals), and Chantilly (who took Briar Woods to overtime in the quarterfinals), and Bishop O’Connell (the equal of the Bulldogs and Falcons in wins), and Battlefield (with high-scoring Player Of the Year John Litscher), and Oakton (bested Langley in Adams Division standings), and Woodbridge (perennial playoff-maker) and fellow Ashburn school Broad Run (second to Briar Woods in Smythe Division) — have gotten better.
“Going into the last few games of the season, it was pretty evident that there was a lot of parity between the top six or eight teams,” said Briar Woods head coach Bill Hughes, pilot of the Falcons’ program since its inception. “Any of us could have made it here.”
“The talent around the whole league is coming up,” said Lynch, also the chairman of the NVSHL’s board. “The last eight teams in the playoffs, any of them could have won.”
Hockey’s ever-increasing popularity in Northern Virginia (especially Loudoun County), combined with the increased access to ice rinks and quality coaching from youth programs like the Ashburn Xtreme, the Reston Raiders and the Washington Little Capitals, should help safeguard the prominence that the region’s high school programs have reached, and even the dominance that Stone Bridge and Briar Woods have enjoyed.
Not that the immediate future is certain, however.
Rock Ridge High School is scheduled to open next academic year, upping the total number of secondary institutions in Ashburn to four and cleaving into Briar Woods’ student-body territory.
After Friday night’s NVSHL title tilt, Hughes revealed that he will move over to Rock Ridge to start up the Phoenix’s hockey program, just as he did at Briar Woods. The change seems a bittersweet one for Hughes.
“This has been a lifetime experience for me,” Hughes waxed. “To see it come from where we started, from a JV program to a mixed club and then a full varsity team. Then making the finals, then winning it, then winning it again. It’s been like climbing the mountain and getting to the pinnacle.”
Whether Briar Woods’ formidable athletic programs (including its two-time defending champion ice hockey club) can remain successful after a new neighboring high school is introduced into their territory is yet to be seen.
But with Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals continuing to inspire D.C.-area youth to learn to skate with a stick in their hands, and with the Xtreme and other clubs continuing to pump out high-skilled adolescent talent, seeing the Bulldogs and the Falcons driving deep into the playoffs should not suddenly become a rare thing.
Stone Bridge partisans shouldn’t feel too smug about the potential talent split soon to befall their upstart rival Falcons. Not long after Rock Ridge divides Briar Woods’ student (and athlete) base, a new high school called Riverside will come along in Lansdowne and do the same to the Bulldogs.
Regardless of the future, those two Ashburn schools will forever be enshrined in the Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League record book as having won a combined seven of the first 13 championships the league had to offer — and it’s hardly outlandish to postulate that that title total could keep going up.
Like Lynch said, “As this year progressed, we saw that you better beat us this year, because we’re gonna come back strong next year.”
Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League 2013-’14 First-Team All-Stars
Goalie: Martin Trivieri, Stone Bridge
Defensemen: Eric Rindfleisch, Stone Bridge; Will Rambin, Chantilly
Forwards: Justin Plumhoff, Briar Woods; John Litscher, Battlefield; Keegan Kelly, Chantilly
NVHSL Past Champions
2001-02 Stone Bridge
2002-03 Stone Bridge
2003-04 North Stafford
2004-05 North Stafford/Robinson
2006-07 Osbourn Park
2007-08 Stone Bridge
2008-09 Bishop O’Connell
2010-11 Stone Bridge
2011-12 Stone Bridge
2012-13 Briar Woods
2013-14 Briar Woods