As ice hockey gains momentum, the Crusaders are on the rise.
Eustace skates toward goal
Is there a more dedicated group of high school athletes than those who play ice hockey?
I doubt it.
Most of the players play 12 months a year. They pay for their own ice time during the off-season. They play their games in relative obscurity. Crowds are usually sparse.
The players don’t seem to mind. They play because they love the sport.
“To stay sharp, you have to concentrate on hockey 12 months of the year,” senior center Nick Lepore said. He is one of the leaders of the Bishop Eustace Prep, which stunned the New Jersey high school hockey community with a 4-2 win over St. John Vianney, the state’s top ranked team, in Wall Township on Wednesday night.
“There’s not a time of year when we’re not playing hockey.”
Lepore wasn’t complaining. Hockey players are extremely focused and team-oriented. Especially at Eustace, which has established itself as a state power – despite a 6-6-1 record.
“I’m happy the way the team is coming together this season,” said Tom Garvey, a senior forward/defenseman who scored one of the goals that helped hand Vianney its first loss to a New Jersey team this season. “We realize that we all have our own roles on the team. What it means to be a team is that we all play for each other. We do not have any selfish players on this team.”
There are more than 100 NJSIAA-sanctioned ice hockey teams. Their high schools pay for the players’ ice time (about $260 per hour), uniforms, and transportation costs. Eustace and Saint Augustine Prep are the only two sanctioned teams in South Jersey.
There are numerous South Jersey club teams that are not sanctioned and are not permitted to compete against NJSIAA teams. The players from those schools – which include Cherokee, Clearview, Eastern, Highland, Lenape, Shawnee, Washington Township, and Williamstown – pay for their own ice time, uniforms, and transportation.
“The school boards haven’t approved it for many schools,” said Eustace ice hockey coach Mike Green, a former Division II college hockey player who doubles as the Haddon Township boys’ soccer coach.
“But you can tell by all the rinks that are going up that it’s only a matter of time before South Jersey catches up with the rest of the state and had more (sanctioned) teams. It’s expensive, but such an overwhelming number of kids are playing now that I think you’re going to see more South Jersey teams.”
Eustace, which plays its home games at the Skate Zone in Pennsauken, competes in the Gordon Conference of the New Jersey Interscholastic Ice Hockey League. The conference is composed of the state’s eight premier teams – all of which qualify for the NJSIAA tournament, regardless of their record. Other teams need a .500 record at the February 9 cutoff date to qualify for the tournament, which is sponsored by the New Jersey Devils and culminates with the finals – matching the public and parochial champs – at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford.
The teams that finish at the bottom of the Gordon Conference frequently are ranked among the state’s elite. Eustace is a case in point. The Crusaders are sixth in the conference with a 2-6-1 league record but are ranked No. 9 in New Jersey.
The New Jersey players who go on to play Division I college hockey usually compete for teams in the Gordon Conference. After graduating from high school, Green said, “the beat players in the country usually play a year in prep school before going to a Division I program.”
Joe Johnston, a sophomore forward who has scored a team-high nine goals, and sophomore defenseman Dave Baratta are the Eustace players with the most Division I potential, Green said. Other standouts are Lepore, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound senior who has scored a team-high 20 points on five goals and 15 assists; Garvey (eight goals); and senior Phil Passarelli (eight goals).
For a few years, Eustace has been on the verge of becoming a strong contender for a state title. But teams in Central and North Jersey didn’t take the Crusaders too seriously.
Until Wednesday night.
“The win against Vianney felt good, but I hope when we look back on it, it will mean very little,” Garvey said. “It was only the first step for us, and now we have to prove ourselves every game.”
Oops. Two days after it jolted the state’s No. 1 team, Eustace, not a marked team, dropped a 5-0 decision to fifth-ranked Christian Brothers Academy.
Still, ninth-ranked Eustace, after a 1-5 start, has lost just one of its last seven games and has some loft aspirations.
“Our goal is to win the state championship,” Garvey said. “Anything else and I think our season will have ended too early. This is the best ice hockey team our school has ever put on the ice, and we’re only going to get better.”
The breakthrough win over Vianney was even more satisfying because, earlier this season, Eustace came oh-so-close to managing a tie with Brick Township, generally regarded as the state’s best public school team. Brick scored with five second remaining to edge Eustace, 5-4.
“It hurt to lose like that,” said Lepore, one of many Eustace players who prepare for the high school season by playing together on teams at the Hollydell Ice Arena in Washington Township, “but we knew we were going in the right direction because we played them so close.”
After jolting Vianney, keeping games close is no longer a moral victory.
“At the beginning of the season, I told the kids I thought we should end up in the state’s top five and be a serious state contender,” said Green, whose team will play St. Augustine in Vineland on Wednesday, then play host to Brick on Friday.
“This win gives us something we can hang our hat on. It shows what we’re capable of doing.”