By DON BENEVENTO
When last we turned our attention to the ice hockey rink, the St. Augustine Prep School team was engaged in one of the wildest and most joyous celebrations ever for a South Jersey program.
Thanks to a late goal by Kevin Crowe that broke a 1-1 tie, the Hermits defeated St. Peter's Prep 3-1 in the Mennen Arena and became the first-ever ice hockey team from South Jersey to win a state championship.
The reverberations from that Non-Public title win sent shockwaves throughout a region that had always been somewhat under-respected by the powerful teams from the North.
"It was enormous for South Jersey hockey," said Mike Green, the head coach at Bishop Eustace Prep.
The victory, which enabled the Hermits to finish 23-0 for the season, meant so much because it sent a message.
Even though there are only five teams in the South (out of 112 teams in the state) that play NJSIAA-sanctioned ice hockey, a least a couple of them can compete with the elite teams.
"I don't think anybody in the South was surprised when we won the championship," said St. Augustine coach Tim Fingerhut. "People who knew our team were aware of what we were capable of doing." Turning the page
Now comes a new season. Along with Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine, the New Jersey Ice Hockey League will have teams from Paul VI, Gloucester Catholic and St. Joseph playing this year.
Bishop Eustace will open its schedule today by traveling to play Seton Hall Prep, while St. Augustine opens Friday with a home game against Bergen Catholic.
This season both Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine will take a step up in class. They moved from the Red Division of the Southern Conference into the highly regarded Gordon Conference. Such a move signifies that they are considered among the top nine teams in the state. Gordon Conference teams automatically qualify for the state tournament.
"This is an exciting opportunity for us," Fingerhut said. "We're not looking forward to the travel, which will be a little more difficult. But we are confident we can compete as one of the top five teams in the state." A rivalry is born
It has taken some time for the Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine programs to reach their current status.
Green took over a young program nine years ago and he has seen gradual progress in each of the ensuing seasons.
"The thinking was we had enough good quality hockey players in South Jersey to put together a team that could compete at the state level," Green said. "What we needed was for the players around us to realize they could stay here in South Jersey and play a high level of sanctioned ice hockey."
As the Eustace program advanced, along came St. Augustine, a team that would ultimately provide the Crusaders with a strong rival.
Green quickly saw the emergence of a new power as a good thing for South Jersey hockey. Great teams often need great rivals to bring out the best in each other, and that's how the Eustace-St. Augustine matchup now works.
"When St. Augustine plays Bishop Eustace it's as good as any sporting event in the state," Green said. "(Because of the rivalry) by the time we go to play those Northern schools we know what it's like to play in these highly intense games."
"When they come to our rink it's a total mob scene of students and parents," he said. "It's one of those things where we could be 0-20 or 20-0 and it would still be very exciting." How they fare
Both coaches go into play this season with rosters they think will be competitive in their new surroundings.
Bishop Eustace has the younger of the two teams, but Green will be relying on a handful of seniors to carry the workload until the others catch up.
One key player is senior Al Wooley, a four-year starter who will be switching from defense to play a forward position this season.
"It's going to be exciting because it's a whole new thing for me this season," Wooley said. "I've been playing defense for 16 years, so this is a change. It should be fun though."
Green plans to match Wooley on the first line with Kevin Harding, and he hopes those two, along with Anthony Mariani, will provide some scoring punch. Tom Lynch is one of the team's top defenders and he'll be working in front of goalie Nick Casella.
"We will look to Nick to provide some stability in the nets," Green said.
At St. Augustine, where Crowe returns as a senior right winger, Fingerhut will be counting on an experienced crew.
He expects some goals from Ryan Mara, who he describes as "an offensive powerhouse."
"He's one of the best goal-scorers in the state and he scores in big games," the coach said.
Fingerhut describes Dave Macalino as a speedy forward who he thinks is going to contribute on special teams. Center Zach Stern, is described as an all-around complete player, while the coach calls Rob DeSimone the anchor of the defense.
However, whether this group can match the performance of last year's squad remains to be seen.
"It's just like I told the guys, just like last year we're going to play every game," Fingerhut said. "I can't imagine that we will win every game again, but our goal is to defend our state title and get back to the final four."
Reach Don Benevento at firstname.lastname@example.org