There might be no greater cliche in sports than “Defense wins championships.”
There may be no place that proves that mantra better than Belmont Hill, where the Independent School League’s top defense over the past three seasons has helped to capture at least a share of three consecutive ISL titles.
With plenty of standouts returning to the fold, including a five-pack of top-ranked seniors, the Hillies are poised to once again be a cliché … and they’re OK with that.
“The first thing we talk about, day one, is play great defense,” explained senior defender and co-captain Max Fields, who will play for Cornell next year. “Coach is always harping on it. I’ve been lucky enough to play with a ton of great poles and be mentored by (current Brown players) Alex Santangelo (and) Max Gustafson when I was an eighth-grader. I learned to grow up through the ranks and how important defense is to our game. It’s the key cog to our whole operation out here.”
For head coach Tim Sullivan, the defensive mindset began with his predecessor and current assistant coach, Chris Butler, who also is the head football coach and defensive coordinator at Belmont Hill.
Some of the other contributing factors include Sullivan’s own prowess for his former position, as well as a wealth of talent at the position that continues today.
“Coach Butler focuses primarily with the defensive players, and every day we do individual sessions and the defensemen really get great coaching,” said senior goalie and co-captain Danny Hincks, who is committed to play at Dartmouth next year. “There’s been older guys before us, Max Gustafson, Cole Nagahama (Holy Cross), Alex Santangelo, who taught us the way to compete with the little things on defense, with the footwork and checks.”
“A lot of it comes from (Butler),” Sullivan said. “I played defense in high school and college, so naturally we start thinking there first. On top of that we’ve just been very fortunate to have poles that are two- and threeseason varsity athletes.”
Captaining the ship alongside Hincks and Fields is attackman Jake Haase, who along with fellow senior attacker Brian Antonelli (Brown) forms one of the ISL’s deadliest 1-2 duos up top. Last season, they combined for 57 goals and 70 assists, and they enter their senior campaign as two of only seven players since 1983 to play four years on the varsity level.
“They’re unique,” Sullivan said. “They’re the first four-year players in my nine years here. … I don’t even want to count up the number of passes they’ve thrown to each other or shots they’ve taken or number of practices they’ve spent with each other. They’re very unselfish players.”
Anthony Marinello is a force on both sides of the ball as the long stick in the middle and capable of dominating any opponent that may lose him in the shuffle of the other names on the roster.
“That kid is a beast on groundballs,” Fields said. “He’s a key guy on faceoffs, running LSM, shutting down middies. We think he’s very underrated in this league, but he’s definitely one of the best out there. His work ethic is unbelievable. I can praise him all day.”
For Fields and Hincks on the back end, it’s a matter of trust that has been built up since they landed on the Hill together in seventh grade.
“He’s saved my butt so many times,” Fields said. “I can’t give him more props. The competition that I face, I’m always trying to be the enforcer, forcing them to do something they don’t want to do. Sometimes it backfires on me, but Dan’s always been there strong and steady. It’s a huge relief just knowing he’s back there.”
“For Max, we put him on teams’ best players since he was sophomore,” Sullivan said. “He grew up and matured very quickly as a player. He’s a tremendous athlete.”
The direction in which these five will head following this season will put them against each other in the future, something they are all looking forward to when those moments arise.
For now, though, they always are confident in their ability to compete for another ISL title, they simply are taking things one game at a time (another cliché), enjoying their last days playing together while trying to once again live up to the ultimate cliché.
“I think we go into each season thinking we can win the ISL championship, because we have that experience,” Haase said. “We don’t want to be the senior class who didn’t win an ISL championship. I’ve won it every other year and I don’t want it to be any different, but we know the mindset is to only focus on the next game first.”
“We take it day-by-day,” Hincks added. “As of right now, we’re focusing on tomorrow and what we need to do to make ourselves a championship-level team.”