Ben Zaranek is not just a champion, he’s a national champion. With Zaranek in goal, the Pope Francis Preparatory School boys’ hockey team from Springfield recently captured the USA Hockey High School Division 1 National Championship.
“It felt amazing, honestly,” Zaranek said, “knowing that our team from Massachusetts was the best high school team in the country. It was really cool knowing that we were No. 1.” Zaranek made 23 saves while Pope Francis defeated New Tier of suburban Chicago, 3-0, in the championship game on April 19 in Omaha, Nebraska.
So why is a golf website writing about a hockey goalie? Because Zaranek is also an All-Western Mass. golfer who led Pope Francis in scoring average as a junior.
A lot of hockey players are good golfers because a slap shot resembles a golf swing. “It’s all about body and balance and how you rotate your body,” said Zaranek’s father, Mike, director of golf at Brattleboro Country Club in Vermont, “and that’s what makes hockey players so good at it. And they have good eye-hand coordination, strong wrists and forearms, and they understand balance and the body motion - moving your arms, shoulder and your body together, all in one motion.” However, as a goaltender, Zaranek doesn’t attempt many slap shots. He credits his father with developing him as a golfer and a hockey player. Before becoming director of golf at Brattleboro CC, Mike was head pro at Crumpin-Fox Club in Bernardston and Crestview CC in Agawam. He also played junior hockey for the Springfield Olympics and four years of hockey for Elmira College in New York. Ben said he’s played both sports since he was 3 years old, but he didn’t take golf very seriously until high school. His calm demeanor helps in both hockey and golf. So does his hand-eye coordination and his ability to not get discouraged after making a mistake, allowing a bad goal or making a poor golf shot. “Just being able to stay in the present,” his father said. “Whatever happened in the past, as far as what you gave up, you can’t do anything about it. It’s almost like playing golf. You can’t live in the past in golf and you can’t predict the future. You just stay in the present and do your job at that moment and he’s very good at that.”
Zaranek, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound senior, isn’t big for a goaltender. His father believes if he were a bit taller, he’d already have a Division 1 college offer, but Zaranek isn’t so sure.
“I think height definitely helps goalies,” he said, “but you’ve got to be quicker if you’re not as tall because if you’re tall you take up more net. But it’s still how much work you put in and if you have the skill, you’ll get the college look.”
Zaranek plans to follow the path of many college hockey players by playing at least a year of junior hockey beforehand. Twenty-year-old college freshmen aren’t unusual in hockey. Zaranek turns 18 on Saturday. He’s signed with the Junior Bruins and plans to take part in the New Jersey Titans camp to give him another option.
Zaranek could have another growth spurt because his brother, Jacob, is 6-foot 2. Jacob, 22, plays golf for Fairfield University and he qualified to play in the 2019 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst, North Carolina.
Zaranek said his putting has improved and that he hits a golf ball farther than his father. They’ve never played a match against one another, but that may change this summer. There are no plans for the father to shoot pucks at his son. “I don’t think I could shoot it by him,” Mike admitted.
Zaranek and his teammates competed in the nationals as the Springfield Cardinals even though they were all from Pope Francis.
Zaranek appreciated that Pope Francis fans watched the livestream of the final at Nathan Bill’s Bar & Restaurant near the high school in Springfield. The championship made up for some past disappointments.
In 2018, Zaranek was the backup goalie while Pope Francis lost the Massachusetts Super 8 final to B.C. High, 2-1, in OT. In 2019, Zaranek was in goal when Pope Francis lost the Super 8 final to B.C. High, 2-1, in four overtimes.
“It was honestly devastating after working that hard to get there,” Zaranek said. Pope Francis had defeated B.C. High earlier in the Super 8 Tournament, but lost the rematch. “To finally beat them, we got that chip off our shoulder,” Zaranek said. “Then for them to score in the last minute to tie it up and then lose in the fourth overtime, it was devastating.” In 2020, Pope Francis shared Super 8 title with Arlington High because the pandemic canceled the final. “That didn’t feel too good either,” Zaranek said. “We all really wanted to play. We wanted to get back to the Garden and win a state championship, like we tried to do the previous two years.”
This year, however, there was no disappointing ending. Pope Francis went 9-0 against MIAA competition. No postseason tournament was held because of the pandemic so Hockey Night in Boston staged a Final Four instead. Pope Francis defeated Archbishop Williams and Zaranek backboned a 2-0 win over Hingham. Then Pope Francis won all six of its games in the USA Hockey High School National Championship Tournament. Zaranek stood tall in net to help his team become a national champion.