ICE HOCKEY KEY DATES
Sat., Dec. 1: Season opened
Mon., Feb. 11: Cutoff for tournament
Mon., Feb. 25-Wed., March 5: Preliminaries
March 7-10: Quarterfinals
TBA: Semifinals and finals
By CHUCK GORMLEY
It didn't take long for defenseman-turned-center Al Wooley to set the tone for his senior season at Bishop Eustace Prep.
Twenty-five seconds into their season opener against fourth-ranked Seton Hall Prep, the Crusaders fell behind 1-0. That's when Eustace coach Mike Green tapped his captain on the shoulder.
On his next shift, Wooley crushed a pair of opponents, leaving one with a separated shoulder and another hunched over on the bench.
"He sent tremors through everybody on their team," Green said.
The Crusaders stormed back to win the game, 4-3, giving them their first-ever victory over the North Jersey powerhouse. Appropriately, the game ended with Wooley furiously killing off a Seton Hall power play.
"Everybody likes to look at themselves as a big-time goal scorer or a finesse player and that's not what he's going to be," Green said of his 5-foot-9, 190-pound center. "Al doesn't even realize he makes players around him better and makes everybody who plays against him worse because of the way he plays.
"He energizes the game because he's so physical. He adds an element of enthusiasm and intensity to the game every time he steps on the ice."
Coming off an 11-8-1 season that was ended by Bergen Catholic in the state quarterfinals, Bishop Eustace was elevated to the nine-team Gordon Conference this season. They will face the top teams in the state, including a pair of games against top rival St. Augustine, which won its first state title last season with a 23-0 mark.
Preseason rankings had Eustace at the bottom of the division and the Crusaders will get an early indication of where they stand when they face top-seeded Delbarton twice in the first eight days of the season.
"That's an insult with the players we have here," Wooley said of the Crusaders' low preseason ranking.
Senior defenseman Tom Lynch agreed, saying the stakes are higher now that the Crusaders opened the season with a win over Seton Hall.
"People are going to look to take us out," Lynch said. "We think we can play with any team in the state, but now we have to prove it."
Green's decision to move Wooley from the blue line to the top line already is paying off. In its first two games the top line of Wooley, senior left wing Kevin Harding and sophomore right wing Jamie Hill has combined for three goals and four assists.
Hill is the more creative of the three and Harding is the finisher. Wooley said he's still trying to find his way at center after playing defense his whole life.
"It takes a lot better shape to play forward, I'll tell you that," Wooley said.
Lynch, who played against Wooley two years ago when he played for the Junior Phantoms and Wooley played for the Little Flyers, said Wooley is probably a better defenseman than he is a center, but expects that to change as the season progresses.
"When he played against us he just destroyed us," Lynch recalled.
Under the direction of Green and assistant coach and former Flyers center Keith Primeau, Wooley said he has learned how to use his aggressiveness to his advantage, especially on faceoffs and in front of the net.
"They put restrictions on me," he said. "I can't be a wild man out there. I know I'm not a finesse player and my job is to go into the corners and win loose pucks. Coach Primeau is showing me how to position myself in front of the net to score goals."
Unlike many of his teammates, Wooley is not playing club hockey this winter despite offers to play for the Topeka (Kansas) Roadrunners of the North American Hockey League and the Durham Fury of the Ontario Hockey Association. He said he'd rather devote himself to his senior season at Eustace.
"If I get any good offers from colleges or Junior A team I'll listen," Wooley said. "But right now I want to see how far this team can go."
Wooley noted the Crusaders should get a boost from freshmen forwards Andrew Tegler and Chris Tracy as well as sophomore center Mark Constantine.
"We don't have an antagonist on this team," he said. "No one is complaining about ice time or anything else. We're a true team and that's why I think we have a legitimate chance this season."
Reach Chuck Gormley at email@example.com