Division/Classification: Class A North, Public B
Record last year: 18-5-4 (8-2-1)
Home rink: Middletown Ice World
Opening night: Saturday, Nov. 28 at Marlboro, 7:30 p.m.
MIDDLETOWN – For the first time in its 16-year history, Middletown North’s ice hockey team will enter a season with state championship hardware to defend.
However, heavy is the head that’s adorned with an NJSIAA Public B crown, as that gold-plated plaque carries with it a sizable target, one the Lions will wear each night they take to the ice.
It’s an aspect of this forthcoming campaign that coach Matt Clemente has stressed to his club.
“One the first things we addressed at our first practice is the fact that we can’t take anyone for granted,” Clemente said. “We’re going to be getting everyone’s best shot every night. But we showed last year that we were able to shoulder that, so I know these guys are capable of handling it.”
One of the advantages this Lions outfit holds over every one of its Shore Conference opponents is an offense fronted by a pair of NCAA Division I commits: Quinnipiac University signee Khristian Acosta and Northeastern University-bound Bobby Hampton.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun to have Bobby around for a full season,” said Acosta, who finished third in conference scoring a season ago with 74 points on 32 goals and 42 assists. “We played half a year with him last year, and we were able to do a lot. But having him for a full season just makes us even stronger up front.”
In only 16 games — after transferring from CBA, Hampton was forced to sit out until Dec. 1 — the eventual APP Shore Conference Player of the Year delivered 54 points with a team-leading 35 goals.
The Lions’ deep corps of forwards will also feature returning seniors Vinny Tomasetti (16g, 32a), Kevin Felice (15g, 16a) and Sean Crimmins, as well as juniors John Dinnocenzo and Evan Hall and sophomore Justin Skelly, who are all expected to take on expanded roles.
“We’re going to have very good depth this year,” Tomasetti said. “We have a lot of talent on both sides of the puck, and I think we’ll be all right. We’re focused and have a quiet confidence right now.”
Though unquestionably deep, the Lions’ blue line is of particular interest, as the defensive zone took the biggest hit from graduation, losing senior captain Tom Terranova (the program’s all-time leading scorer), as well Zach Gazette and Nick Kirch.
But Clemente is confident in the group he has returning, which includes seniors Ryan Davidson and Kevin Tolland, as well as junior Brian Colucci and sophomores Kyle Goworak and Nick Dodd. The defense will also be fortified by impact freshman John Hallard, a touted travel-hockey pivot out of the New Jersey Colonials program who is expected to log sizable ice time.
Perhaps the linchpin to what this Lions team can achieve in 2015-16 is goaltender Anthony Manfredi, who transferred to Middletown North from Staten Island last year and was pivotal in this program’s playoff push, earning the final four victories of the title run, a stint in which the senior posted a .917 save-percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average while earning shutouts against Indian Hills and Chatham.
“I think the biggest difference is that this year there’s an expectation,” Clemente said. “It was sort of a surprise when they won last year, but seeing how they deal with the mental adversity of expectations this year will be interesting. But they know they can win, they’ve proven it, and they’re hungry to do it again.”
Middletown North opens its season on Saturday at Marlboro, before hosting crosstown rival Middletown South next Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Middletown Ice World.