LEWISTON – All Dylan LaBonte wanted was a chance.

Then, all the sophomore goaltender hoped for was a second chance.

LaBonte had a simple goal in mind when the year began, but never imagined he’d achieve that and more. He also didn’t anticipate the work and the challenges he’d face to get that far.

“At the beginning of the year, I started out on the JV,” said the Lewiston High School goaltender. “I knew I wanted to be on the varsity squad at the end of the year. Coach just told me to keep working and working, and I’d get my shot, and I got it.”

After nearly letting that opportunity slip away, LaBonte emerged as the Blue Devils’ top netminder and has backstopped them to Saturday’s Class A state championship game.

“It’s intense,” said LaBonte. “At the beginning of the year, I never would have thought I’d be starting going into the Class A state championship.”

Norm Gagne wasn’t sure where LaBonte fit on Lewiston’s depth chart in the preseason. With a glutton of goaltenders, the Lewiston coach put LaBonte on the junior varsity squad.

“We thought maybe next year, he’d be ready to start, but he struggled at the beginning of the year,” said Gagne.

Gagne stresses to his players the importance of keeping their grades up and making a commitment in the classroom.

“If you don’t step up with the grades, and the team has to worry about you all the time, whether you’re in or out, that’s not a good thing,” said Gagne.

Gagne also is adamant that players who do well in the classroom do well on the ice. Problem-solving skills they develop in the classroom makes them better athletes.

“It makes it so much easier to make adjustments,” said Gagne. “They understand. They problem-solve every day in class. They can communicate and figure out what they need to do and understand what you’re trying to get them to do.”

So Gagne made it clear to LaBonte that he had certain standards to maintain in the classroom, and the coach made the goaltender a deal.

“He was having trouble in making a commitment,” said Gagne. “I told him, ‘I’m going to make a promise to you. If you make a commitment in the classroom, I’ll make a commitment to you, and give you some starts. You can show us what you can do.'”

The agreement brought out the best in LaBonte, not only in school, but also on the ice.

“He did that,” said Gagne. “He passed the test. So I kept my end of the bargain. He did an outstanding job in the quarter. He got all As and Bs. We were pleased with that.”

As the Blue Devils struggled to a 3-8 start, LaBonte was told he might get the nod against either Waterville or St. Dom’s in early January.

“The next practice they told me that I was starting against St. Dom’s,” said LaBonte. “I was all pumped up.”

The Blue Devils lost to the Saints 3-0, but LaBonte was solid in net. He felt he did his part, and the coaching staff saw promise.

“The goals that were given up were on rebounds that weren’t cleared,” said Gagne. “They weren’t his fault. It was just a matter of our defensemen clearing the puck. So we decided he looked good. He made some great saves and made some big stops when we needed them. So we decided to give him another shot.”

Lewiston stuck with LaBonte through four games, including a 1-0 shutout of Cony, but the goalie soon found himself ineligible because of grades. He says he got “too pumped up for hockey” and found himself out of action. Junior Alex Lafreniere filled the void and led Lewiston to victories over Mt. Ararat, Bangor and a tie with St. Dom’s.

“I thought I blew it because Alex had started a couple games in a row,” said LaBonte. “So I was the backup, but I was still glad I was on the team.”

When Lewiston fell behind Edward Little in early February, Gagne made a change in goal in hopes of shaking up the Blue Devils. LaBonte came in, and Lewiston rallied for a 5-4 win. Lewiston has lost just one game since and gave up 16 goals in the final eight games.

“I’m just hoping that he realizes and appreciates the position that he’s been in,” said Gagne, who says LaBonte has the potential to become one of the program’s all-time greats. “I hope he keeps working hard. If he keeps a level head and keeps improving his game, he’s going to be an outstanding goalie.”

LaBonte and his Blue Devils have a chance of a lifetime – one that all hockey teams covet. They’ll compete for a state title and play a Biddeford team the Blue Devils already beat once, 5-4, nearly a month ago.

“I’m trying not to think much about it, but the days are going by pretty slow,” said LaBonte. “Saturday’s going to come. Everybody’s a little nervous out there, but we’ll do our job.”

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