WELLESLEY — As the final buzzer sounded at Babson Skating Center Saturday night, and a final shot from the Norwood High boys was not enough to avoid a 1-0 loss to Wellesley, there was an air of surprise and frustration among the visiting Mustangs.
Expletives escaped a few mouths, a few sticks were angrily banged against the ice, and the team moseyed around for a few seconds before half-heartedly going through the post-game handshake line.
“We could have used him tonight,” said Norwood coach Bill Clifford .
“Him” is Matt Brown , who three years ago this month, as a sophomore at Norwood, was paralyzed after breaking his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae in a game against Weymouth.
Since the accident Brown has made a habit of visiting the Mustangs at practices and in the locker room during games to both coach his former teammates and pump them up, though he did not make the Wellesley game.
“I like watching my hometown and I like watching my boys play,” Brown said in an interview two days after the loss.
“I was once in their shoes so I like to see when they’re playing well, and I like to give any input I can to maybe help them out.”
Clifford and senior captains Tyler Gover and Jordan Davis say he gives the team a lift.
“They listen to him. He’s a big part of us still,” Clifford said. “He’s on the coaching staff as far as I’m concerned. He helps us. I think there’s a little motivation there for the kids, too, when he comes in and talks.”
That role has been a little different this season, with Brown now a freshman at nearby Stonehill College.
But Norwood continues to use him and his story as motivation, and the Mustangs still don “3,” Brown’s number, on the left shoulders of their yellow-and-blue sweaters, a practice Clifford says will continue as long as he coaches the team.
“To go to their games and still see the number 3 on there, it really touches me,” Brown said. “It’s really special.”
Only a handful of players remain from that fateful January 2010 game, Gover and Davis among them. Both said, however, the younger Mustangs don’t need to be taught to play for the “3” on their jersey.
Everyone knows what it means.
“We still skate for him because we all know he’d be doing the same for us,” Gover said. “You just got to keep going while you still have it, and you got to play every game like it’s your last, every shift like it’s your last. And that can happen to anyone.”
Brown has attended most of the Mustangs’ games while he’s been home on winter break, and Gover said when Brown did come back, it was as if nothing changed.
“He just said, ‘You gotta play harder,’ ” Gover said, recalling their first conversation of the break while shaking his head and smiling. “ ‘Get the team going.’ ”
Be it their on-ice skill or skating for Brown or — most likely — a combination of the two, the Mustangs (4-2) are off to an encouraging start following their trip to the Division 1 South sectional semifinals last year. The loss to Wellesley was the team’s second of the year, the other coming against Hingham in the Dec. 12 season opener.
The success starts at the top with Davis, who is in his third full season as the Mustangs’ starter in net.
Gover needs just one word to describe Davis, his cocaptain and classmate, who owns a 1.17 goals-against average and .954 save percentage: “phenomenal.”
Clifford is not afraid to use a few more.
“He just keeps getting better and better every year,” Clifford said of Davis. “There’s no limit for him. And he works hard. He’s always doing something on the ice. ‘Coach, give me some shots on net, give me some shots on net.’ ’’
Clifford threw Davis into the fire, giving him his first varsity start against Weymouth in the first round of the state tournament during Davis’s freshman year.
The Mustangs lost, but Davis “held his own,” Clifford said, and has remained the starter since.
Davis, who said he relies on his agility to make up for his small frame, stays humble and did not quite accept the “backbone” label Clifford put on him.
“I’ve been around a lot. I’ve had a lot of experience,” Davis said. “To have experience, I guess that’s pretty good.”
For Davis and Gover, who leads the team with 12 points (four goals, eight assists), the next few months represent their last chance to make a big run as Mustangs and maybe, just maybe, work toward a state championship, just as Clifford did during his 1971-72 senior season with the Mustangs.
“It’s my last year around here, so I got to let the boys know to give it everything they got every game,” Davis said. “Hopefully we can give it our best this year and . . . go to the Garden.”Continued...