Overtime was seemingly a rite of passage for competitors to gain access to the Shore Conference Tournament title game, as both top-seeded Red Bank Catholic and No. 6 Howell earned their shot at the crown with extra session semifinal victories.
However, Saturday evening’s championship proceedings were far more decisive, as the Caseys skated to a dominant 6-2 win over the Rebels at Middletown Ice World to earn the inaugural designation of “Shore Conference Champion.”
“This feels incredible,” Caseys captain Kevin Stickle said. “Every year since I’ve been at RBC it’s been the Dowd Cup and the Handchen Cup, and if you won it still couldn’t be said that you were a Shore Conference Champion, because you didn’t beat all the elite teams. Now we have. And now we can finally say that we’re the best in the Shore Conference.”
Though the physical battle appeared to be even in the opening period, time on attack was dominated by Red Bank Catholic, as the Caseys outshot the Rebels 18-8 and generated three goals from the onslaught.
Red Bank opened the scoring at 3:46 when Stickle ripped a low-rising slapshot from the point into traffic, where Max Weber got a stick on the puck and deflected it off the crossbar and in for his ninth goal of the season.
After Evan Hoey rang a wrist shot off the post on a Caseys power play, continued pressure in the Howell zone led to another blast off the crossbar by Lenny Coviello. With the puck settled behind Rebels’ sprawling net-minder Bobby Dovenero, Griffin Hurley, who chipped in the overtime game-winner in Red Bank Catholic’s semifinal win over Point Boro, tapped in his sixth goal of the season at 9:53.
Hoey extended the Caseys’ lead after the sophomore was dragged down on a breakaway, earning a penalty shot, and scored his team-leading 33rd goal of the season over the blocker of Dovenero, who made 36 saves in the loss, to end the first period.
“When we were putting together the shootout lineup for the earlier rounds,” Caseys coach Ken Carlson said, “Evan told us not to include him because he didn’t like shootouts. I told him he’s crazy, he’s our leading scorer. But he knew this goalie tonight and was telling the guys to shoot high blocker, which is exactly what he did.”
“Bobby [Dovenero] is on my travel team,” Hoey said, “and I know from playing with him that he has a great glove, so I wanted to avoid that and go blocker side. I’ve been working on an inside-out move in practice, and I pulled it tonight, and it worked.”
The second period saw much of the same from Red Bank Catholic, as Alec Mintz slid home his 14th of the year on a cross-crease pass from Ian Malone, before Stickle scored his sixth of the season from an off angle, making the score 5-0.
Howell finally broke through with under 10 seconds remaining in the second period as a bouncing puck found the stick of Rebels defenseman Matt McNaught, who deposited a slap shot past the blocker of Mike Cosentino for his first goal of the year to make it 5-1. Cosentino stopped 27 of 28 shots faced in the victory,
With the loss, Howell will now set its sights on the NJSIAA Public A tournament where the Rebels have earned a No. 9 seed and a first-round meeting with West Windsor-Plainsboro South.
“We had a couple little mental letdowns tonight that will come back to hurt you against a team like RBC,” Rebels coach Bill Daley said. “But the boys understand that this tournament is done, this game is over and tomorrow we’ll move on to practice and preparing for West Windsor and the five wins we’ll need to win a state title. . . . This team is mentally tough. We’ll bounce back from this and be ready for states.”
With the victory, Red Bank Catholic improved to 16-0-2 in its last 18 games, a streak that dates back to Dec. 20 when the Caseys suffered their only loss of the season thus far to St. Peter’s Prep.
It’s a mark the Caseys are proud of, and a run that has their confidence running high heading into NJSIAA Non-Public tournament play.
“Our confidence level is high right now,” Cosentino said. “Right after that loss to St. Peter’s we went on a 10-game winning streak. That defeat really sparked us, and since then we’ve developed some incredible momentum and team chemistry. It’s all coming together for us at the right time of year and we’re ready to do some damage in states.”
The Caseys earned the No. 10 seed in the Non-Public bracket and will travel to No. 7 St. Augustine on Thursday.
“St. Augustine is a good team,” Cosentino said, “but I don’t think there is any team in the state we can’t hang with right now. We can play at anybody’s level and I think we’ve showcased that this season. We’ve gutted out some tough wins, we have some good momentum right now, and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people in this tournament.”