The best season in the Cougars’ short history is still ongoing with the 2021 SAHOF State Championships coming up in March.
Expectations for the 2020-21 Lightning High School Hockey League season were high in the Durant clubhouse, and for good reason. The program headed into its fourth year of existence missing only two of last year’s seniors, returning 10 seniors for this season and, most importantly, knowing what it takes to get to the championship level.
The 2019-20 season saw the Cougars not only make it to the second round of the LHSHL playoffs, but also make the cut for the Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida (SAHOF) State High School Championships in Estero. With so many pieces coming back for this season, head coach Todd Comunale and his staff knew this team had the potential to do something special.
“Our three goals at the beginning of the year were to win the Modin division, which we did, to play for Lightning Cup championship, which we did, and then to make the final game at the state tournament in March,” Comunale said.
Durant’s depth and experience proved to be a huge advantage this season. The Cougars went 21-4 overall and excelled in league play with a team that proved to be strong in all areas of the game.
The offense is led by senior captain Jordan Putnam, whose 49 points are tied for second (with Palm Harbor forward Richard Biszant) among all LHSHL players. His 29 goals are second-most in the league and his 20 assists are tied for third-most (with East Lake forward Daniil Bogdanov). A breakout 30-point season (19 goals, 11 assists) from junior Josh McKeen also helped tremendously.
Durant got five seniors back on defense and their leadership, Comunale said, was crucial to the team’s success. Lockdown defense from stalwarts like Michael Romeo and Xander Wise made life much easier for the one-two punch of Ryan Putnam and Will Chabalowski in net. This dynamic duo emerged as one of the league’s best last season and stayed hot in 2021: they combined for an 18-2 overall record and four shutouts (three for Chabalowski, a past Plant City Observer Athlete of the Week).
Though skating director Jen Kious left after four years of being one of the team’s most invaluable resources, much of the coaching staff stuck around this season and Comunale said that continuity was another big reason for the team’s success. Jamie Gorham, Clint Walden and Mike Cappiello have all been with the team for its entire lifespan and JV coach Steve Butler’s two years with that program has helped players like Robert Noble and Colin Smargon make huge strides up into the varsity roster and become impact players.
The Cougars never scored fewer than three goals per game in regular-season league play, handily won the Modin Division and beat perennial LHSHL playoff contender Manatee for the first time ever.
Durant got a first-round bye in the LHSHL playoffs and took on rival Newsome in the second round on Feb. 5. Newsome rallied back from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to force overtime, then both teams went to the shootout. Comunale chose to have Durant shoot second and — by his own admission — that may have put a lot of stress on the Cougars. When the Wolves scored in the top of the fifth frame, the Cougars had no choice but to score on their next two attempts. Dante Denney tied the shootout at 1-1, Ryan Putnam made a huge save on Newsome’s next attempt and Noble buried the game-winner up high to send the Durant bench into “bedlam.”
“It was something I hope these kids remember for the rest of their lives,” Comunale said.
Durant played Manatee again in the league semifinal and had a much easier time, picking up a 6-2 win to face 2019-20 champ Seminole in the title game.
Seminole took a 2-0 lead into the third period and then extended it to a 3-0 lead just 46 seconds in, but Durant began to mount a comeback. Jordan Putnam scored on the power play at 4:34 in the period to end the drought and McKeen scored at even strength three minutes later to keep the Cougars within one goal of the Sharks. But the Cougars couldn’t keep the scoring burst up and the Sharks put the game away with Carsan Cabral-Downes’ empty-net insurance goal at 13:39.
“There’s 18 other teams in the league that would gladly trade places with us,” Comunale said. “We should be proud of the season we put together and it’s still going.”
Despite the loss in the Lightning Cup championship, two of Durant’s goals were achieved and the third is still on the board. The Cougars are going back to the SAHOF State Championships from March 12-14. The tournament will once again be played at Hertz Arena in Estero, home of the Florida Everblades.
Visit sahofhockey.org/ssc for more information.