January 4, 2007

Eustace, St. Augustine skating in elite circles

By Matt Pesyna

For The Inquirer

Ryan Mara has been on the business end of some physical play from Al Wooley on more than a few occasions the last couple of years. So when the St. Augustine Prep senior forward learned that Wooley was moving from defense to forward for Bishop Eustace, was Mara relieved?

No way.

"I know he plays a physical game and he'll find a way to do it [as a forward], too," Mara said. "It's a little different, but he's still going to hit and he's still going to be tough to play against."

Both the Hermits and Crusaders have become tough to play against. Now they rank among the state's best ice hockey programs.

Last season, St. Augustine went undefeated, becoming the first South Jersey team to win the Non-Public state title. This year, both teams have moved to the prestigious Gordon Conference, home of New Jersey's elite teams. Mara and Wooley are major reasons for the surge.

Mara scored 24 goals and had eight assists last season as St. Augustine shocked the northern schools. The Hermits' sparkplug stands a solid 5-foot-11, 185 pounds. He uses his size well, he's slippery in the corners, and his shot can be deadly. It's all part of being a complete forward, coach Tim Fingerhut said.

"He's physically a machine. He's a powerful, quick skater," said Fingerhut, who plays Mara on a line with Dave Macalino and Tom Zerbo. "Offensively, he's one of the top three kids in the state. He can play any game you want. He can be physical, he buries the puck, scores in big games. He can dish the puck to set up goals."

This season, Mara is adding another aspect to his game: leadership. Now a senior, he said he needed to fill the skates of last season's captains and push the Hermits to the same level.

"Nobody expected us to do what we did. Now, every team plays harder against us because they want to beat the state champs," Mara said, noting the Hermits woke up after an early-season loss to Christian Brothers Academy and a tie with Don Bosco Prep. "We know we can't take games off. If we do, we won't get back to the final four in the state; if we don't do that, to me, the season is a failure."

St. Augustine (2-1-2) is ranked No. 4 in the state by the Newark Star-Ledger. If the Hermits look just above them, they will see No. 3 Eustace (5-2-1), which has tied No. 2 Delbarton and beaten No. 5 Seton Hall Prep.

Those results have Wooley smiling.

"People were saying we'd finish at the bottom of the Gordon at the beginning of the season, and now we have people hunting us," the 5-9, 190-pound senior said. "We're making teams match our play."

Wooley is a pest to play against. He throws his weight around liberally, and his height helps him stay low and win battles along the boards. That was important as a defenseman, and it has carried over to his role as a forward, especially when his line cycles the puck down low.

Eustace coach Mike Green employs Wooley on a line with finisher Kevin Harding, and the two have jelled early in the season.

"Al's a great forechecker. He has the energy and physical wherewithal to play forward and have a big effect on the game low in the corners," Green said. "He was always a defenseman who would make big, Scott Stevens-like hits in open ice. We've had to harness that in making him a forward."

Wooley said his biggest challenge in changing positions was the added amount of skating he must do, and how to position himself in goal-scoring areas. He credits Eustace assistant coach and former Flyers center Keith Primeau for accelerating his progress.

"Keith has helped me pick up a sense for where to be and when to take my chances," Wooley said. "It's invaluable having him. Just picking his brain has made me a better forward."

Green said St. Augustine's run to the state title last year earned South Jersey a level of respect. Now, with both teams having a level of success against the state's best squads - and teams like Gloucester Catholic, Paul VI, and St. Joseph (Hammonton) improving their programs - the region is no longer looked at as inferior in ice hockey circles.

"When I took over nine years ago, it was a challenge for Eustace to compete with the elite in the state," Green said. "But now we have players sticking around and not going to Canada or to prep schools to play because they want to play for Eustace or St. Augustine. They want to be part of the rivalry we have. And along the way, we've both had some breakthroughs and we've caught up to everyone else. The north schools know that."


Gordon Conference is a league apart

In NJSIAA-sanctioned ice hockey, teams are broken up into conferences and divisions based on skill level and regional location.

The top division in each conference is the red division; the midlevel is the white division; and the lower tier is the blue division.

The exception to the rule is the Gordon Conference, of which Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine Prep are first-year members. The Gordon is composed of nine teams that are considered the elite in the state. Every team is guaranteed a spot in the state tournament, no matter its record on the Feb. 11 cutoff date.

The interesting thing is, Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine really had little choice but to join the Gordon, as the teams' former league, the Southern Conference, was disbanded in the offseason. The majority of the teams in the Southern Conference are members of the Shore Conference in other sports. Those schools formed their own Shore Conference Hockey League, and that left the true South Jersey teams in the cold.

"We could have started up our own league with Gloucester Catholic and Paul VI and St. Joseph, but those schools aren't ready, yet, to play at our and St. Augustine's level," Eustace coach Mike Green said.

Instead, Eustace and St. Augustine petitioned to join the Gordon and quickly accepted an invite. Paul VI (White Division), Gloucester Catholic (Red Division), and St. Joseph (Blue Division) joined the Central Conference, and they are a combined 10-5-2 this season.

Meanwhile, the Crusaders (5-2-1) and Hermits (2-1-2) are fighting it out with the big dogs.

"There are no easy games. The best team can lose to the worst team. It's that close," St. Augustine senior Ryan Mara said of the Hermits' new conference. "You don't get any off nights. You have to come to play or you'll lose."


Keep an Eye on These Guys

Nick Allison, junior, Gloucester Catholic

The creative forward is the key to the Rams' offense.

Nick Casella, junior, Bishop Eustace

He rotates in goal, but his 37-save effort in 1-1 tie with Delbarton shows he is tough to beat.

Kevin Harding, senior, Bishop Eustace

One of the team captains, he has good speed and a knack for finishing plays.

Dave Macalino, senior, St. Augustine

The crafty, playmaking forward had six goals and 17 assists last year. He keys the top line with Ryan Mara.

Charlie Massey, junior, St. Joseph

The Southern Blue Division all-star from last year is the Wildcats' top scoring threat.

Zach Stern, senior, St. Augustine

The second-line center scored the game-winning goal in last year's state championship game. A clutch player.