The Bethlehem hockey team may have come up short in its bid to win a Section II title, but it can’t diminish what the Eagles accomplished this season:
A Capital Distrcit High School Hockey League divisional title.
Its first Sectional championship game appearance.
Six CDHSHL All-Stars.
Its first CDHSL scoring leader (Stephen Russo) and leading goaltender (Alex Cooper).
Its first league player of the year award winner (Cooper).
A record number of wins (15).
And the Eagles accomplished all of it in Andre Rodrigue’s first year as the team’s head coach, and in a season in which they had to raise money so they could play.
Rodrigue said the difference was changing the culture surrounding a program that had long struggled to reach the league’s upper echelon.
I’m a very high intensity kind of guy when it comes to hockey, said Rodrigue, who came into the program after coaching several years with Bethlehem Youth Hockey. `I was in their faces, and I constantly reinforced things to them. I constantly reminded them that working hard will result in great things on the ice.`
Bethlehem’s new attitude was evident from the get-go. The Eagles opened the season Nov. 28 by beating traditional league powerhouse LaSalle 4-2.
`We were underdogs going into that first game, and that was something we had to set aside,` said Rodrigue. `I told the guys we couldn’t think of ourselves as underdogs.`
That attitude served Bethlehem well during the regular season. The Eagles recorded regular season victories over defending Section II Division I champion Shaker/Colonie and defending Division II champ Queensbury, and they earned their first-ever point against Shenendehowa by tying the Plainsmen 2-2 Jan. 16.
Bethlehem’s 14-3-2 regular season record earned it the Division II regular season title and the top seed in Sectionals. A 7-1 semifinal victory over Burnt Hills/Ballston Spa Feb. 25 propelled the Eagles into their first Sectional final.
Unfortunately for Bethlehem, things fell apart against Queensbury in the championship game two day later. The Spartans scored twice in the first period and maintained a healthy lead the rest of the way for a 4-2 victory and their fourth consecutive Section II title.
`We came out and played like a team that had never been [to the finals] before and they played like a team that was a defending champion,` said Rodrigue.
Russo scored both of Bethlehem’s goals against Queensbury to end the season with 20 tallies to go along with 32 assists, and Cooper stopped 45 of the 49 shots he faced.
Cooper completed his senior season with some impressive statistics to earn Player of the Year honors. Cooper compiled a record of 13-3-2 and a goals against average of 1.72, both tops within the CDHSHL.
Besides Cooper’s award, the CDHSHL named Russo to the all-league team. Senior defenseman Kenny Jack was selected a Division II first team all-star, while forwards Kyle Barach and Erik Halek were named to the second team. Derek Barach and Sam Vincent were honorable mentions for all-league honors.
Rodrigue said the task of replacing Cooper, Russo, Jack and the rest of Bethlehem’s eight seniors would be difficult.
`You can’t replace Cooper, you can’t replace a Stephen Russo and you can’t replace a Kenny Jack because they’re one-of-a-kind players,` said Rodrigue. `It’s going to take some time, but some guys are going to step up in leadership roles [next year].`
The task of preparing for next season will go beyond just what happens in the weight room during the off-season, though. Rodrigue said Bethlehem’s players will likely be counted upon to help raise money for ice time next season, since it’s possible that the program will not be fully funded by the school district.
`I don’t necessarily know what the [school district] budget holds for us, but I think we’ll be in the same situation as this year, if not a little worse. It’s still a difficult economy,` said Rodrigue.
One thing is for certain, though. When the Bethlehem hockey team takes the ice next winter, the rest of the CDHSHL will be ready for it. And the Eagles won’t be backing down from the challenge.
`Losing that [Sectional final] is going to be an upsetting thing right now, but it will be motivation for us next year,` said Rodrigue.“