BANGOR — The John Bapst High School hockey program began in 1991-92.
The Crusaders of Bangor will play in their first ever Eastern Maine championship at 7 p.m. Tuesday when they take on defending EM Class B champion Messalonskee of Oakland at Alfond Arena in Orono.
Messalonskee is 17-2 and the top seed, while 14-5-1 John Bapst is the second seed.
Meanwhile, the 17-3 Bangor High School Rams, the second seed, will face top seed Lewiston, 16-3-1, for the EM A title at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston at 6 p.m.
Bangor has never won an Eastern Maine A hockey championship.
John Bapst dealt Messalonskee one of its two losses, 5-4, at Bangor’s Sawyer Arena on Jan. 12. Messalonskee had bested John Bapst 1-0 in their mutual season-opener.
“It has certainly been a journey,” said John Bapst coach Gene Fadrigon, who went 4-1 in EM title games when he coached at Old Town. “The kids are excited and the coaches are excited.”
One of the catalysts has been senior goalie Jaron Leonard. He has allowed just two goals in playoff wins over Lawrence of Fairfield (4-1) and Presque Isle (5-1).
“He has made us look good on a lot of occasions this year. He has made up for some of our defensive mistakes,” said Fadrigon.
“He has been playing great,” senior center and leading scorer Jacob Fletcher said.
“I’ve been having a lot of fun,” Leonard said. “The defense has been great. I’m only seeing 21 shots a game.”
The Crusaders are pleased with their first-time accomplishment.
“It’s obviously a big thing for the school and, hopefully, it will be a stepping stone for the rest of the boys for the future,” Fletcher said.
“We’re playing pretty well right now. As the year has progressed, we learned to compete with the teams we needed to beat. We’ve had a couple of odd losses here and there, but we’ve had some big wins that have helped us,” Fletcher said.
“It’s crazy. They expected Orono, Brewer and Messalonskee to be the top three teams. We came out of nowhere, really,” Leonard said.
Leonard said team depth — the Crusaders used three lines from day one while most teams play just two lines —- has been a key ingredient.
Fadrigon said his team has jelled and has put two good performances together in the playoffs.
He said hockey’s unpredictability is intriguing.
“We weren’t considered one of the top contenders and here we are,” Fadrigon said. “The postseason is totally different. A few bounces one way or the other or one call could change the whole complexion of the game.”
The Crusaders said the two close games with Messalonskee have given them some confidence, but they know they will have to contain the high-powered line of the Cunningham brothers, Chase and Jared, along with Joshua Towle.
“They’re real fast and real elusive,” Crusader senior defenseman Kurt Massey said. “We have to limit them to bad-angle shots. We’ve got to keep their quality shots to a minimum.”
Leonard said the Eagles like to make plays from behind the net, and he and his mates have to be wary of that.
“We’ve got to stay with their guys and not let them get to the lane [to receive a pass from behind the net],” he said.
Seth Yachanin and Alex LaFrance flank Fletcher on the all-senior top line.
Just as Leonard has been vital to John Bapst’s success, junior Rye Powell, a first-year starter in goal, has been integral to Bangor’s.
He made 31 saves, including a breakaway stop off Chase Hainey in the second overtime, as Bangor beat St. Dominic of Auburn 3-2 in double overtime in their semifinal.
His save off Hainey set the stage for Parker Sanderson’s game-winner just 33 seconds later.
“I’ve done what I’ve had to do,” Powell said. “I want to win. When you think about it, we’ve worked four months for this.”
“He has been great,” Bangor senior left wing Carl Farnham said. “He proved he can play with the big guys. He has overcome some adversity and proven he’s one of the top goalies in the state.”
“[St. Dom’s] should have ended the game a couple of times, but he came up with some huge saves,” Sanderson said. “We’ve super-confident in him.”
Powell, who backed up Chris Howat last year, said he never lacked confidence.
“I knew I could do it all along,” he said.
Powell said the Blue Devils will supply a challenge as the Rams seek to avenge 5-2 and 2-0 regular-season setbacks.
“They move the puck well, get guys in front of the net and get guys going to the back door,” he said. “There’s a lot of things to worry about. Our guys are going to have to keep their heads on a swivel.”
“We’ve got to stay out of the penalty box,” said Sanderson, who missed the 2-0 game with a leg injury.
Sanderson (22 goals, 24 assists) and linemates Jordan Tracy (14 & 18) and Zach Papsadora (13 & 12) have paced the Ram attack while Lewiston has been led Kyle Lemelin (18 & 14), defenseman Patrick DeBlois (9 & 16) and goalie Evan Bourassa.