BFA-St. Albans' Jodie Gratton tracks the puck during Monday's championship game against Spaulding. Gratton finished the season with 25 assists, which is a program record for a season. (Ben Kaufmann, County Courier)


By Ben Kaufmann

A note from the author: The research for this story comes from the Comet Hockey website, a collection of the entire history of BFA-St. Albans girl’s hockey made possible thanks to two decades of painstaking work by Brad Thomas. Thomas, a BFA hockey parent, coach and friend, passed away during the 2021-2022 season before the Comets could conclude their first undefeated campaign. It was Brad’s wish that memorial donations be made to the Marie Thomas Scholarship Fund, c/o Northwest Career & Technical Center, attn: Mary Ann Langlois, 71 South Main Street, St. Albans, Vermont 05478 or the Franklin County Area Cancer Network, P.O. Box 1186, St. Albans, Vermont 05478. 

ST. ALBANS – Following a COVID-shortened season in 2021, BFA-St. Albans took a quarterfinal loss to Burlington/Colchester for its earliest playoff exit ever. One year later, the Comets returned on a mission and ran the table – capping off an unbeaten season with a thrilling, 3-2 win over Spaulding on Monday at UVM’s Gutterson Fieldhouse.

“I wanted it more than anything in the world,” said BFA senior Rachel Needleman. “You don’t forget that moment where you lost that game and then next season comes around and it fuels you throughout the season and the playoffs.”

“A lot of these girls experienced the early loss last year, leaving early as a high seed and BFA hockey is known for their championship runs,” senior Sophie Zemianek said. “I think that just set a fire under us, I think that just lit us up and got us to here and was the reason we were able to do what we were able to do. The heart and determination of each and every one of these girls is just unbelievable.”

BFA-St. Albans senior Sophie Zemianek raises the championship trophy after Monday’s win over Spaulding. (Ben Kaufmann, County Courier)

The ‘21-’22 season was more than simply a return to glory for BFA (22-0), the Comets dominated in one of its finest offensive seasons since the program’s inception in ‘00-’01. Though BFA ended up eight goals short of the 133-goal record set in its inaugural season, plenty of numbers from the ‘21-’22 campaign will live in the Comet record book for years to come.

“You never plan those things,” BFA coach Luke Cioffi said of his team’s perfect record. “You plan to get better every day in practice and this group really bought into that. They’re just a talented group, a fun group to coach. I think the best part was all the obstacles they had to overcome outside of hockey to be able to play hockey. To have a clean slate at the end of the year is pretty remarkable.”

Junior Jodie Gratton took the single-season assist record in the semifinal round and added one more Monday to get to 26 on the year – three helpers clear of the previous record set in ‘00-’01 by Emmy Handy. Zemianek ends the campaign with 22 assists, good for third place, and sophomore Caroline Bliss joins a tie for fourth on the single-season assist list with 19.

BFA-St. Albans’ Caroline Bliss battles for the puck during Monday’s championship game. (Ben Kaufmann, County Courier)

Fittingly, for this BFA team which thrived because of a great deal of weaponry instead of one big tank, the ‘21-’22 Comets demolished the assist record list but didn’t alter the top of the single-season goal book. Gratton led the squad with 23 goals and Zemianek finished with 20 – both shy of Kristine Dodd’s ‘00-’01 tally of 30 and just shy of Caitlin Manahan’s third-place 25 goals (which she accomplished twice in addition to holding second place with a 28-goal season).

Gratton wraps the year tying Dodd’s single-season points record of 49, set like many of the other records in ‘00-’01. Zemianek grabs fourth on that list with 43 points this season. Zemianek also joins a group of four Comets tied for second in hat tricks in a season after netting three this year. 

BFA becomes the first Division I team to complete a full undefeated season. Essex didn’t lose a game last year but only played 10 games due to COVID and wasn’t able to play its championship game because of COVID issues with the BCHS team which had just handed BFA its earliest playoff exit ever. Spaulding completed its own 22-0 championship season in 2020 but did so in Division II. The only one-loss full season in Division I belongs to the 2014 Essex squad and U-32 and Burr & Burton (twice) have both achieved the feat in Division II. BFA’s next-best campaigns were 20-2-0 (‘01) and 20-2-1 in 2006 and 2019, with championships capping the ‘01 and ‘06 campaigns.

“We just were worried about winning every game we came across, one game at a time,” Zemianek said. “And if it happened to be undefeated like that, that’s a great way to go out.”

BFA-St. Albans players celebrate after winning the program’s 12th championship on Monday. (Ben Kaufmann, County Courier)

Unbeaten seasons, though extremely rare, have happened in boys hockey – most recently by Essex in 2004. BFA collected unbeaten boy’s hockey seasons in 1975 and 1988 with coach Cioffi as a member of that ‘88 team.

BFA went deeper than just offense this year, even if the defensive record books aren’t as impacted by the ‘21-’22 Comets as the offensive ones. Makenna Montgomery (257) and Erin Jackson (122) combined to stop 379 shots and earn five shutouts. Two great goaltenders is a good problem to have, but had just one of those girls played every game and made the same saves, they’d now be third on the single-season saves list. 

“We worked hard for this all season,” said Montogmery, who stopped 19 shots Monday to earn the championship victory. “That’s all we wanted.”

Zemianek did her damage as a defenseman (and, for the record, her most impressive stat this year was approximately one billion blocked shots in the final minute Monday with BFA shorthanded and clinging to a one-goal lead). She was joined by defensive standouts like Rowan Howrigan, Rachel Needleman and Molly Smith in making sure the Comets could get to 22-0 without having to set every offensive record. BFA’s defense improved as the year went on, earning three of its five shutouts in its final four games and allowing just eight goals over its last nine games. They only allowed two goals in their three playoff games with both coming during Monday’s championship. The BFA program average is 33.90 goals allowed per season, this group allowed just 36 with a full slate of playoff games.

“A lot of offense, but we learned to play defense by the end of the year,” Cioffi said. “It’s just a fun group. You never think this is what it’s going to end up being. We’ve won some big games and we’ve had some great teams. But it’s pretty special to do it with this group.”

All this was done in a more competitive era than when the program first started. BFA won the first five VT Division I titles (and one more in the unofficial season prior to that) and eight of the first ten. In ten subsequent seasons, the Comets won two titles despite reaching the semifinals in nine of those years.

Maybe BFA is on its way to another semifinal streak for the record books, though it’s not an easy task. Even removing the unofficial ‘00-’01 season, the Comets’ 19 straight trips to the final-four trails only Burr & Burton girl’s tennis active 22-year streak and a 20 season run by Stowe boy’s tennis which concluded in 2004. Middlebury girl’s lacrosse also had a 19 year run, but like BFA, much of that stretch was against a weaker field in a new varsity sport. The next closest semifinal streak in hockey belongs to the BFA boys, who reached 15 straight semifinals from 1986-2000 and the next closest in girl’s hockey is an active 11-year one belonging to Essex. Many Comets who were a part of that 19-year run also helped with another streak belonging to Comet softball from 1994-2007. 

The time to look ahead will come later and, even when that time comes, BFA builds its success one game at a time rather than one season at a time. For now, it’s time to simply enjoy the completion of a season for the ages in St. Albans.

“It is a stat that will stick out for sure,” Cioffi said. “I think the girls are aware of it, they just bought into the Comet tradition and the BFA tradition. It’s something they want to add to and they certainly did that, not just with an undefeated season but with the pride and urgency that they played with all year. We’ll sit back and look at this and enjoy it for years to come.”

The BFA-St. Albans girls hockey team celebrates its 12th championship in program history after Monday’s win over Spaulding. (Greg Lamoureux, County Courier)