Interest increasing in South Jersey Ice Hockey

Jan 13, 2001

By DON BENEVENTO

Courier-Post Staff

Anthony Nordo has no problem expressing his enthusiasm for playing ice hockey, a game he was first introduced to almost as soon as he was able to lace up his skates.

 

"I like the competitiveness of the game," he said. "I like the toughness, the speed of the game -- everything there is."

 

In fact, ice hockey is the only sport that Nordo is interested in playing at a competitive scholastic level. That makes it fortunate for him that he attends Bishop Eustace Prep School. Bishop Eustace Prep and St. Augustine Prep are the only two schools in South Jersey that put New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association sanctioned hockey teams on the ice.

 

Whether more schools are to follow remains to be seen.

 

A number of high schools are playing club hockey in an informal South Jersey League, but they have not taken the steps yet that would make it a sanctioned sport on a statewide level.

 

Both Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine have gone that route. They began as club teams, but school officials have decided to make a deeper financial commitment in order to cover such expenses as equipment, ice time, insurance, and travel costs.

 

St. Augustine coach Greg Conicello said the budget for his teams runs about $27,000 a year.

 

St. Augustine rents the Hollydell Rink in Washington Township to use as its home ice. Bishop Eustace plays the Flyers Skate Zone in Pennsauken. Rental fees for ice time alone can reach $230 an hour.

 

Still, proponents say the benefits of sponsoring an ice hockey team often outweigh the negatives.

 

"When the program started years ago, we told the parents we would sponsor it as a club for a couple of years and see if it sustains life," said Bishop Eustace rector Rev. Joe Capella. "Well it did sustain life. And after the third or fourth year, we said we'd take it on and make it one of our school programs. They could wear our jerseys and the school would pay some of the expenses."

 

Rev. Capella was one who saw the upside of such a venture.

 

"(Having an ice hockey team) gives the school a certain notoriety outside the usual level of high school programs," he said. "The team gets a lot of support because it is unique. The kids get very excited about it."

 

Conicello has had a similar experience at St. Augustine, where the level of fan support is high.

 

"The reception we have gotten has been great," he said. "The school fully supports the program."

 

Both schools also have found no shortage of those who were interested in playing high school ice hockey.

 

Bishop Eustace, coached by Mike Green, has 27 players on its roster, including Nordo and assistant captains Bobby Beauchamp, John Mirmanesh and Ryan Wade, who provide the senior leadership along with Brett Audino.

 

Junior Greg Ball and sophomore Evan Kostka share goaltender duties, while Green lists freshman Joey Johnston among his best players.

 

At St. Augustine, Conicello puts out a roster of 20 varsity players and 20 junior varsity players, led by captain Nick DeSimone, a resident of Washington Township.

 

Junior defenseman Ray Rastelli is also one of the St. Augustine captains, while winger Bill Haas is one of the team's leading scorers.

Like Bishop Eustace, St. Augustine also has a freshman contributor in winger Justin Britton.

 

"He's a strong hockey player," said Conicello, who also relies on the play of goalie Gus Yamulbilis.

 

For their part, both Green and Conicello came to their respective teams with a wealth of ice hockey coaching and playing experience. Green is a former youth and prep school player, and Conicello said he's been involved in ice hockey for 20 years, the last three at St. Augustine.

 

Green, who also coaches boys' soccer at Haddon Township, is in his second season at Eustace, where he led the team into the state tournament last season.

 

He has seen the game's popularity grow.

 

"There was a time when you had to go out of state to play competitive hockey." Green said. "But now that it's growing in New Jersey, a lot of the guys who played are coming back to coach. I think that's helped the level of hockey."

 

While ice hockey hasn't quite caught on in South Jersey yet, it is a growing sport statewide.

 

Taking into account three conferences, along with a number of independent and private schools, more than 100 ice hockey teams are eligible to compete for an NJSIIA state championship.

 

Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine play in the 64-team New Jersey Interscholastic Hockey League -- by far the biggest conglomeration of teams in the state.

 

Eustace plays in the National Division A, which includes teams considered among the most experienced and best in the conference.

 

According to a state poll, Bishop Eustace, which went into play this weekend with a 3-5-1 record, is the No. 10-ranked team in the state.

St. Augustine is a first-year member of the NJIHL and has been placed in American Division A, the slot designated for new teams.

 

However, St. Augustine has had a program in place for three years and is one of the better teams playing at the lower level, as witnessed by the fact that the Hermits won their first eight games.

 

"We actually have a very strong program," said Conicello. "We really should be much higher, but that's the way the league works."

 

So much of the action is concentrated in the northern and central part of the state. And that creates travel problems for South Jersey's two teams.

 

It is not unusual to take a two- or three-hour bus ride to play. Along with playing 20- to 22-game schedules, both Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine generally practice two times a week as well, so that requires some adjustments in personal schedules.

 

That is especially true in light of the fact that both Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine place stringent academic demands on their athletes.

"Sometimes it gets tough for academics," said St. Augustine's DeSimone, who -- like many other high school players -- also plays for a club team. "The way I approach it is to put academics ahead of hockey."

 

Others try to adapt to the situation and enjoy the fact that they're getting a chance to play a game they love so well.

"I do my homework on the bus," said Eustace's Beauchamp. "It gets to be a hassle at times, but it's fun."