Motivated by a disappointing loss in the opening-round of last year’s state tournament, the St. Joseph High School ice hockey team hopes to use that season-ending defeat as a catalyst to success.
The Falcons ended the 2014-15 campaign with a 17-3-3 record after allowing four goals over the final five minutes of a 6-2 playoff loss to Bergen Catholic. The flurry of goals was more than St. Joseph had allowed in 21 other contests.
St. Joseph head coach Ryan Carter said the sting of that defeat inexplicably carried over to the first two periods of a season-opening scrimmage against Delbarton earlier this month, during the third period of which the Falcons finally “figured out how to claw back into the game and showed some grit and resilience.”
Carter said the performance of his team in the third period of the Delbarton scrimmage enabled it to finally move past the Bergen Catholic loss and will serve as the springboard for what he hopes is another year of dominance in the Greater Middlesex Conference and beyond.
Since the GMC was formed in 2010, the four-time defending conference tournament champion Falcons have lost just two league games – one to Old Bridge in the regular season two years ago, and another to South Brunswick in the league playoffs five years ago.
“GMC hockey is starting to turn the corner,” said Carter, noting that all of the other teams in the league have improved. “I know a lot of the kids coming to the other schools and I think the competition is getting better.”
St. Joseph outscored league foes 75-6 in regular-season and tournament games with Monroe scoring as many goals (three) in a 4-3 GMCT semifinal loss as the Falcons allowed the rest of the year in conference play.
As the league’s flagship program, St. Joseph’s regular-season and conference tournament success has not translated into the state tournament. The Falcons have made 22 NJSIAA Tournament appearances without ever advancing beyond the quarterfinals, which they have reached eight times.
For the first time in many years, St. Joseph will blend size and speed, allowing what has traditionally been a perimeter shoot-and-score team to take the puck to the net and match opponents stride for stride.
“We’re tired of getting into the states and getting knocked out in the first or second rounds,” Carter said. “We want to win a state championship. That’s what our goal is. Our mindset is to win every game we are playing and to win the last game of the season.”
St. Joseph celebrates the 30th anniversary of its program this year with 12 returning letterwinners including incumbent All-Conference selection Michael Nisky, who has accumulated 105 points (40 goals, 65 assists) during his career.
Carter will be hard-pressed to replace the graduated Marc Johnstone and Paul Cimilluca, a pair of defensemen who shared Home News Tribune Co-Ice Hockey Players of the Year honors last winter after helping St. Joseph finish with the second most wins in school history (the team’s only other defeats were one-goal losses to Chatham and Notre Dame).
Spenser Burns, a 6-foot-4 defenseman who transferred to the school from Virginia, will help along the blue line, while freshman Mike Sasso, another rookie defenseman, can move the puck and play physical.
Goaltender Michael Sabella succeeds Nick Castagno, who helped St. Joseph post seven shutouts and limit opponents to one goal in five other outings last year.
Joe Mortillaro (17 goals, 19 assists), Kyle Jeffers (11 g, 20 a), Alex Minishak (11 g, 9 a) and Nick Dondej (9 g, 14 a) are St. Joseph’s other top returning scorers. The return of Brian Coelho, who missed last season with a knee injury, will bolster the offense.
Other key players include Ryan Hille (3 g, 2 a), Thomas Bauer (4 g, 8 a), Dillion Snee (2 g, 5 a), Ray Rodriguez (1 g, 2 a), James Ulrich (1 g, 6 a) and Connor Leahy. Nick Freda, Dylan Castillo and Nolan Bantfitch are the team’s top newcomers.
More than 40 percent of St. Joseph graduates have continued their ice hockey careers in college, with several attaining Division I scholarships.
Two former Falcons – Washington Capitals All-Star defenseman John Carlson and Christian Jensen (selected by the San Jose Sharks in 2004) – are NHL draft picks.
Carter said it’s time for the proud program to take the next step and advance deeper in the state tournament than it ever before has.
I'm watching some old-time hockey while working on my GMC ice hockey preview package which I hope to post tonight! pic.twitter.com/WFQeIqm1DG— Greg Tufaro (@GregTufaro) November 26, 2015
2015-16 GMC TEAM-BY-TEAM CAPSULES
(schools appear in alphabetical order)
Coach: Chris Monticollo, 8th season.
Last year: 5-15-1 overall, 1-5 conference.
Top returners: Timothy Bizub (Sr., F); Jacob Manente (Jr., F); Liam Rebetje (Sr., D); Drew Galea (So., F); Justin Yunckes (So., F); Jacob Pajewski (Sr., G); Tyler Murdoch (Sr., D); Patrick Enz (Sr., F); Ryan Herfeld (Jr., F); Thomas DellSala (So., F).
Top newcomers: Justin DiNatale (Fr.), Brian Nieroda (Fr.), Matthew Haggerty (Fr.).
Outlook: Bizub (86 career points), in his second year as captain, is a skilled and physical player who was the team’s second-leading scorer a year ago with 18 goals and 16 assists. Manente has moved from the blue line to forward, where he and Yunckes will be counted on to help replace the graduated Vinny Spino (98 career points) and Mike Palmisano. Galea (9 goals, 4 assists) was the team’s third-leading scorer. Enz tallied five goals. Rebetje is the backbone of the defense. Ryan Creenan and Alex Wolferman will back up Pajewski, who saved 88 percent of the shots he faced last winter. Goaltending is the strength of a young team.
Coach: Ross Berner, 3rd season.
Last year: 3-17 overall, 0-6 conference.
Top returners: Robert Distefano (Jr., D); Micheal Tutalo (Sr., D); Chuck Youse (Jr., D/F); Daniel Lesch (Sr., F); Tom Wales (Sr., D); Parker McKenna (So., G).
Top newcomers: Anthony Gardener (Fr., F); Andrew Hrehowsik (Fr., F/D).
Outlook: Berner’s team hopes to build on some late 2014-15 season success. With just one starter lost to graduation and the addition of a couple talented freshmen with travel experience, the future looks bright. Offensive-minded defenseman Distefano, a second-team All-Conference selection last winter, accumulated 38 goals and 10 assists. He is a game-changer. “Robert was in the top 10 in goals scored in the state last year, and I can only imagine that he will have an even better season as our team gets stronger all around him,” Berner said. “We are hoping that the returning veteran leadership, along with an infusion of new blood, will help us get over the hump and put a strong season together from start to finish. Our main goals are to improve every day, qualify for the state playoffs, and make some noise in the GMC this year.” Tutalo tallied eight goals and seven assists, while Youse finished with seven goals and eight assists. Lesch (4 goals, 5 assists) and Wales (1 goal, 5 assists) are key players. McKenna played mostly out of net last year but had two of the team’s wins while playing in goal including a shutout.
Coach: Jerry Minter, 10th season.
Last year: 11-10-1 overall, 4-2 conference.
Top returners: Gerard Marretta (Jr., F); Jason Gizze (Sr., F); Matthew Freitas (Sr., G); Nicholas Petrie (Sr., D); Kyle Lange (So., F), Michael Benedetti (So., F), Michael Conover (So., F), Dominic Micalizzi (So., F), Anthony Lane (So., F)
Top newcomers: Matthew Skobelev (Fr., D); Samuel Fishteyn (Fr., F).
Outlook: Monroe is celebrating its 10th-year anniversary as a program. The Falcons return three-plus lines of forwards and three defensemen with varsity experience from a team that fell short of a stunning upset of four-time defending GMC Tournament champion St. Joseph with a 4-3 loss to the non-public state power in the semifinals. Freitas compiled a .905 save percentage and a 4.21 GAA last year. He is the school’s career record holder with a 3.75 GAA and will see more time in net with the graduation of Brendan Germano, who holds all other school career goaltending records. Freitas and Gizze (13 goals and 31 assists) were recipients of Monroe’s Unsung Hero award last season. Marretta returns as the team’s leading scorer, having netted 34 goals and doled out 20 assists. Marretta has 51 goals and 29 assists for his career. He is on pace to break Monroe’s career scoring record – which Eduard Stulak holds with 78 goals including a remarkable 11 hat tricks – and to eclipse Kevin Morello’s mark of 126 career points. Petrie provided offense from the blue line with six goals and three assists. Lange, Benedetti, Conover, Micalizzi and Lane combined for 11 goals and 19 assists last season. Monroe has improved its nonconference schedule, adding the likes of Wall, Manalapan, Mendham, Princeton, Watchung Hills, St. John Vianney, Central Regional and Robbinsville.
Coach: Damien LoNigro, 3rd season.
Last year: 12-9-2 overall.
Top returners: Anthony Conti (Sr., F); Arthur Dzieniszewski (Jr., F); Kevin Haslach (So., F); Peter Hernandez (So., F); Tyler Kogut (Sr., F); Daniel Rubin (Sr., G); Robert McKiernan (Sr., D/F); James Silva (So., D); Steven Saporito (Sr., F); Justin Aronson (Jr., F); Jack Morris (Jr., D).
Outlook: For the second consecutive season, the Knights were able to overcome the graduation of key players to remain a GMC power. Old Bridge has reached the league tournament final five of the past six years including a loss to St. Joseph in the 2014-15 championship. The Knights will be hard-pressed to replace forward Mike Cistone, who tallied a team-leading 32 goals and 22 assists. Keep on mind that last year Old Bridge was able to overcome the graduation of Peter Krzewinski, who was the school’s career scoring leader. Netminder Rubin returns after posting a .910 save percentage and 3.10 goals against average. Kogut has amassed 72 points. He tallied 25 goals and 28 assists last season. Morris returns after missing all of last season with an injury. Dzieniszewski (13 assists) moves from defense to forward. Aronson (9 goals, 6 assists), Saporito (5 goals, 13 assists) and Hernandez (2 goals, 9 assists) produced offensively. Haslach and Silva are young but talented defensemen. Old Bridge is experienced and can skate stride for stride with most opponents.
Coach: Sergei Starikov, 1st season.
Last year: 9-11-1 overall, 4-2 conference.
Top returners: Tyler Allen (Sr., F); Kevin McCoy (Sr., D); Brian Mazur (Sr., D); Sean Bocknack (Sr., D); Steven Borke (Sr., F).
Top newcomers: Mason Jenne (So., F); Thomas Bansbach (So., D); Vincent Zhang (So., F); Justin Guelph (Fr., F); Mike Castiello (Fr., F); Harin Ponna (Fr., F).
Outlook: The Vikings are well-rounded with 10 seniors and a solid core of underclassmen including a line of freshmen who could impact games. South Brunswick will be hard-pressed to replace Jeff Wu, the first player in school history to eclipse 100 points who is now at the U.S. Naval Academy. Former linemate Allen is next in line to reach the milestone. Wu and graduated defenseman Mark Fisher were second-team All-Conference selections a year ago. South Brunswick’s experience on the blue line is paramount as goaltender Tyler Harpster must also be replaced. The Vikings compiled a 96-66-11 record in 10 previous seasons under former head coach Michael Slansky, whose successor is a three-time Olympian and former New Jersey Devil.
Coach: Joe Rotella, 9th season.
Last year: 9-9-1 overall, 2-4 conference.
Top returners: Nick Kuchie (Sr., F/D); Hunter Spearnock (So., F); Kyle Mortensen (Sr., F); Mike Parfitt (Sr., F); Dylan Weidele (Jr., F); DJ Schnee (Jr., D); Darren Sopp (Jr., D); TJ Evan (So., F); Adam Godfrey (So., G).
Top newcomers: Lucas Hrabkovsky (Fr., G); Matt Avila (F).
Outlook: The Barrons must overcome the graduation of five key players including Bobby Mulligan, a first-team All-Conference selection who amassed 29 goals and 22 assists and is the school’s career scoring leader. Spearnock (32 goals, 45 assists) and Mortensen (43 goals, 28 assists) enter the season with 77 and 71 career points, respectively. Woodbridge has plenty more firepower with Kuchie (48 career points), Weidele (30 career points) and Parfitt (23 career points). Sopp (28 assists) and Schnee (10 assists) are play-making defensemen. Evan had a quality freshman campaign with a goal and five assists, while Godfrey excelled as a rookie, as well, with five wins in net.