Mascoma High’s Ballard at home with Raiders hockey program
Published: 02-09-2024 5:43 PM
Modified: 02-16-2024 2:45 PM
WEST LEBANON — Conversations swirled inside Campion Rink a year ago. Discussion centered around the possibility that the Lebanon High boys hockey co-op team might be reconstructed in the near future, with Mascoma becoming a feeder school and bringing several players to the fold.
One of those skaters was rumored to be pretty good.
Chalk that specific speculation up as spot on. Mason Ballard, a sophomore center from Canaan, has been everything anticipated and more, producing 19 goals and nine assists to lead the Raiders to fourth place in the 13-team NHIAA Division II standings.
Lebanon-Stevens-Mascoma is 8-4-0 against New Hampshire foes and 9-4-1 overall, including a defeat of Woodstock and a tie with Hartford before using a shootout to claim the Philippe Bouthillier tournament title.
To an extent, Ballard has seen it coming. Cognizant of the challenge before him this fall, he felt anxious and with his parents’ help, found an online sports psychologist who dispensed calming feedback and suggested positive visualization.
Ballard has used their sessions to focus inward, help control his emotions and picture himself playing well in specific situations. He often does so by going off by himself after his team’s pregame stretching.
“Hockey’s such a fast game, and you don’t have much time to think,” he said. “You have to have quick reactions to be an elite athlete, and it helps if you’ve visualized them before. Then it becomes instinct.”
Ballard hones those instincts with a year-round hockey schedule that includes time with club and tournament teams, and that last year took him to Italy to play in an international tournament organized by a travel showcase company. He also decided during the past two years to take better care of his body, awareness not always associated with high school students.
“Sleep and diet have become huge parts of my life ever since I started to get serious about hockey,” said Ballard, who drinks a daily glass of milk and regularly consumes brussels sprouts among his vegetable and fruit selections. “I need that if I’m going to compete at the highest level I can.”
Ballard practices for hours at shooting spaces in his mother’s barn loft and on the deck at his father’s home. He often puts in work while listening to pop or rap music on his ear pods.
“I have about 20 pucks and I pick a spot and shoot there over and over again until it’s muscle memory,” Ballard said. “I have to hit it five times in a row and then I can move to a different spot.”
First-year Raiders coach Dean Cashman, 45, coached the Upper Valley Storm’s bantam team last season, which included his son, Benjamin Fogg, who’s now with LSM. Cashman utilized Ballard as a defenseman last winter but said a gut instinct led him to switch the 15-year-old to center before the current campaign.
“What Mason’s doing on the scoresheet is amazing, but in reality there was an adjustment to being a high school player,” Cashman said. “You have 90-minute practices and the intensity level is up and your time and space with the puck is less.”
Ballard began hockey with the now-defunct Twin Valley youth program, which operated out of Kimball Union Academy’s Akerstrom Arena. He attended Canaan Elementary School and Indian River Middle School before enrolling at Mascoma High, where he also plays soccer and baseball.
Ballard’s father, Jeff, a former Hanover police officer, said his son wasn’t interested in the nearby Cardigan Mountain School, which runs from the sixth through the ninth grade and often sends hockey players to high-level prep school programs.
Jeff Ballard, a Hartford High graduate with warm memories of freezing nights watching the Hurricanes boys hockey team play home games in what was then a rink with no side walls, has long regaled his son with tales of such events’ passion and excitement.
“There’s nothing like the high school sports experience,” Jeff Ballard said. “People come from all over to support you. I think our (LSM) kids are learning good life lessons at the same time they’re starting to change the culture of this program.”
Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal went 1-19-0 last winter in Division III, absorbing physical and scoreboard beatings despite having reached the division semifinals the previous two years. The team’s top two returning players elected to go elsewhere. Combined with graduation losses and four players quitting, the Raiders were bereft of talent and depth.
The 2023-24 season’s outlook wasn’t good, but in a gracious and mature move, the lone Mount Royal player, Gabe Ouellette, volunteered to join another team, opening the door for Mascoma to enter the Lebanon-Stevens co-op and bringing Ballard and several of his talented youth hockey teammates aboard.
“It’s amazing,” said sophomore defenseman Ryder Desharnais, noting that the return of senior defenseman Jack Clary from a winter spent practicing in junior hockey has been a significant boost. “I thought we’d be better, but I never thought we’d be this good.”
Although too humble to admit it, Ballard is a primary reason for the turnaround. Cashman, a longtime Hanover High assistant, has brought new energy and focus to practices and games, but the Raiders’ star player has carried them.
Consider LSM’s 6-5 overtime defeat of visiting Spaulding on Jan. 27. The 6-foot, 165-pound Ballard produced a hat trick and assisted on the winning tally. His first goal came when he read a scramble below the goal line, glided into position in the low slot and pounded home a pass.
Ballard’s second strike was a backhand flip over the goaltender after driving hard from the left circle and with a defender draped on one shoulder. His third goal displayed startling hand-eye coordination when he tipped a chest-high shot from the point, redirecting it down into the net.
“He’s got a well-rounded combination of skills and size and he’s pretty strong, so it’s hard to push him off the puck,” said Desharnais. “Even if he’s outside the faceoff dots, he can still rip in a shot off the post or something.”
Ballard almost always has two hands on his stick and his stick on or near the ice. It’s a simple skill, yet it’s one that eludes many teenage players. He uses the edges of his skate blades to execute sudden and sure changes in direction and moves with his feet at shoulder width, which allows him to successfully absorb and deliver bodychecks.
Two games after his hat trick, Ballard delivered another two goals against visiting Oyster River during a 4-3 victory. He scored the second on his backhand while moving across the slot from one circle to the other, pinpointing a spot over the netminder’s shoulder and under the crossbar, a play not often seen at the high school level.
Said Cashman: “He’s creating followers, others who recognize he’s got skill and endurance they don’t have. If they start practicing and taking care of themselves like he does, it will make a real difference for our team.”
Sounds like a pretty good idea.
Tris Wykes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.