When lining up before his ice hockey game against Branford on March 15, Cheshire High School senior Michael Donato expected to hear his name called in the starting lineup, but another announcement caught him by surprise at Louis Astorino Ice Arena in Hamden.
A defenseman, Donato was presented with 10th Greg Schena/Mark Whitlock Award in a pre-game ceremony. The honor is annually given to the Cheshire player who best exemplifies leadership qualities and an overall commitment to excellence on and off the ice, as well as in the classroom and community.
“I had no idea that I would be receiving the award,” stated Donato. “It is a great feeling after seeing a lot of guys get the honor in the past.”
A member of the Southern Connecticut Conference All-Academic Team, Donato holds a 4.025 grade point average and has made the honor roll every quarter at CHS. He is involved with the Kids for Kids program and Interact Club.
“I think it is important to make an impact in the community and do well in school,” stated Donato. “I’ve worked hard in the past four years and I believe that this (award) shows the younger guys what you can accomplish.”
Cheshire Head Coach Anthony Giusto said that the coaching staff had several good candidates to choose from, but felt that Donato was the deserving choice for this year’s award.
“Michael has put the time into becoming a leader on defense for us,” stated Giusto. “He is also a positive role model in the community and classroom.”
The Greg Schena/Mark Whitlock Award was made to honor the memory of a pair of 2001 CHS graduates and former players, who passed away a week apart in May of 2010. Along with playing ice hockey, Schena played football at CHS and returned to coach on the staff. Whitlock also competed in lacrosse.
Traditionally, members of the Schena and Whitlock families attend the award ceremony, but due to restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Giusto served as the only person to present the plaque to Donato.
“The ceremony was a little different this year, but we still wanted to have it and honor the families,” said Giusto.
After the award presentation, the Rams proceeded to explode offensively in a 7-5 win over Branford. Down 1-0 for the second straight game, Cheshire (4-5) used a 6-0 surge to fuel the program’s 550th all-time victory.
“Our offense has definitely picked up,” stated Giusto. “I feel that we are starting to peak at the right time.”
After Branford sophomore Matthew Morgan scored on a power play to start the game, Cheshire answered with a power-play goal from senior Aidan Gaudet. Freshman Evan Vasiljevs followed up with a goal to put the Rams up 2-1.
In the second, Cheshire went on a 4-0 run to break open the game.
Senior captain Niklas Vasiljevs scored twice in the frame. Sophomore Will Gaudet tallied a power-play goal and his brother Aidan also found the back of the net.
“We brought back a lot of experience on offense this year, so we thought that we were capable of putting up a lot of points,” explained Niklas Vasiljevs.
With 12:34 left, senior Thor Novicelli scored to propel the Rams to a 7-2 lead.
Niklas Vasiljevs earned four assists and Novicelli picked up two.
Evan Vasiljevs and Aidan Gaudet added assists.
“Every one is stepping for us right now,” added Aidan Gaudet, an assistant captain with Novicelli.
The Rams outshot Branford 40-28, with junior goalkeeper Amaan Chaudhry earning 23 saves.
The next night, CHS picked up their fourth straight win, 4-3, over North Branford at Northford Ice Pavilion. The Rams built a 3-1 lead in the first period and then junior Damon Zurolo netted the eventual game-winner just 1:01 into the second.
North Branford scored twice in the second to cut the deficit to 4-3, but the Rams held on to get the road win. Will Gaudet, Novicelli, and senior Michael Caron scored in the first period.
Niklas Vasiljevs, Caron, senior Cullen Wiley, junior Colin Veivia, sophomore Lukas Sargolini, and Evan Vasiljevs earned assists.
CHS led 37-25 in shots. Chaudhry posted 22 saves.
After starting at 0-5, the Rams have gained momentum at season’s end.
“Staying out of the penalty box has really helped us,” stated Novicelli. “It feels good to have a strong finish to our senior year.”
As the fifth seed in the SCC Division II Tournament, CHS was originally slated to play a quarterfinal last Saturday, but when Daniel Hand (fourth seed) had to go into quarantine, Cheshire received a bye.
Wednesday’s semifinal against top-seeded Lyman Hall was past press time at Northford, but a game write-up can be found at www.cheshireherald.com.