At 5 a.m. on November 29, South Kingstown hockey players began to arrive at Boss Arena for the first practice of the high school season.
Showing up at a rink before the sun rose was nothing new to Rick Angeli, the former longtime assistant coach at Bishop Hendricken. But what he witnessed on his first day as SK’s new head coach was something he had never experienced before.
“At Hendricken, the bags were packed the night before, the parents dropped their kids off in the parking lot a half hour before practice and players were waiting for the doors to open. Everyone was excited to get going,” said Angeli. “Here we are at five a.m. the first day of practice, kids are walking in with a box of Munchkins, another with donuts and I’m like donuts?!?? ‘You’re eating donuts before you get on the ice?’ That was the first indication I had that Dorothy’s not in Kansas anymore.”
— SKHS Athletics (@SKHSRI_Rebels) March 9, 2022
Angeli had served as the assistant hockey coach at Hendricken for 25 years and was part of seven state championship teams.
Typically, on the first day of Hendricken tryouts more than 60 highly skilled college-bound players show up. At South Kingstown, 22 players took the ice, including one young man who had told Angeli he had never played hockey before but “wanted to give it a try.”
While there were many differences between the program he had just left and the new one he was now leading, Angeli immediately saw the same love for the game he had witnessed for a quarter of a century at Hendricken. He knew right then he could take what he learned from coaching at the highest level alongside Jimmy Creamer and Ed Walsh and against legends like Mike Gaffney and Bill Belisle and create a successful program at SK.
“Coaching all those years at the Division I level and coaching at the Division III level, I knew there were going be differences for sure, but at the end of the day it’s about teaching kids to play hockey and teaching kids to play hockey the right way so that doesn’t change,” said Angeli.“It’s all about creating the best experience for kids as you can, no matter what level you are. I have had some great mentors. I knew if I could take my experience, implement a system, add structure – this team could be successful.”
The Rebels first year head coach was right.
After sweeping top seed Ponagansett in the opening round of the Division III playoffs the fourth seeded Rebels captured the Division III Championship, defeating Narragansett/Chariho in an intense best-of-three series (5-1, 2-6m 6-4) in front of a spirited crowd at Boss Arena. The championship was the first in the 18 year history of the program .
The Battle for South County was everything it was hyped up to be. Huge crowds packed into Boss Arena, three great games unfolded and @SKHSRI_Rebels claimed the Division III championship https://t.co/XUzVQKeZAs
— William Geoghegan (@RhodyWill) March 10, 2022
“It’s incredible,” said Angeli. “The kids bought into the system and structure we put in place, worked their butts off all season and made this happen. The kids gave everything they had.”
“Winning the championship is one of, if not the best experience this early in my life and I know that goes for most on the team,” said South Kingstown senior Ben Paskalides. “Coach always said something like this isn’t something most get to experience. Everyone involved is extremely grateful for this team and this season.”
“To win a championship this year with this group of guys was a better feeling than I could’ve ever imagined,” said Eison Nee, the team’s leading scorer and championship series MVP. “Everyone’s effort throughout the entire season picked up, which gave us the opportunity to compete in a championship series we’ll never forget.”
The road to the championship wasn’t easy. The season was filled with change. The Rebels, who had reached the Division II finals in 2020 but didn’t get to play the series due to COVID-19, dropped down to Division III. Angeli was the Rebels’ fourth head coach in four years.
“There wasn’t 100 percent buy in at first,” said Angeli, who was assisted by TJ lynch and Dave Cannon. “But change is hard. New coach, new system, new division. ..There was a lot of skepticism early on and rightfully so. I was the new coach – their fourth coach in four years. They were probably thinking, ‘here we go again.’
Angeli knew he would have to start from scratch, not just on the ice, but off as well.
“When you consistently have a transition, building culture is difficult,” said Angeli. “We demanded accountability and communication, not just when they were playing – all the time. It took time, but we knew if we could start to build a new culture, we could be successful.”
The Rebels absorbed the new culture.
“This year was very different. Having new coaches with as much experience and leadership as ours do made every player willing to give everything they had for the betterment of the team. Our coaching staff has positively impacted each and every player and has truly changed the culture here at South Kingstown,” said Paskalides.
“To come into the season having a coach with lots of experience was tremendous for us,” said Nee. “The culture was what got us so far. We had excellent leadership and a crew of guys that loved to be around one another. That created an amazing atmosphere on and off the ice.”
FINAL SCORE, Game 3 of the RIIL Boys Division III Hockey Championship, presented by Ortho RI: South Kingstown 6, Narragansett/Chariho Co-op 4
Rebels win series, 2-1. pic.twitter.com/S91M8w32sv
— RIIL (@RIIL_sports) March 9, 2022
Trusting the process was the key to the program’s success.
“I pulled from my experiences but they were the ones who executed,” said Angeli. The credit all goes to the kids. I’m glad I was able to show them the recipe for success. This is about the process and committing to the process and they did. Doesn’t matter Division I, II or III, you can bring the same approach at any level and it can be successful.”
In turn, Angeli learned a lot from his players who skate for just a few months rather than 6-7 days a week, 12 months a year. He has coached players who have gone on to play college and NHL hockey, but perhaps the player who impressed Angeli the most was the Rebels’ third string goalie, senior Sam Wallin, who never came off the bench in the playoffs.
Wallin, the recipient of the team’s Sportsmanship Award, was overcome with emotion after the Rebels won the title.
“It was an amazing experience. I knew my role. Just being able to be a leader on this team was more than enough motivation for me,” said Wallin.
“That kid never played a minute in the playoffs and he came off the ice, tears streaming down his face, hugging his teammates,” said Angeli. “I’ve been around thousands of kids and never saw such commitment and sense of community. That was such a gratifying experience for me. I’ve never seen anything like it.”