To complete the season preview, we look at the state’s biggest league, the NJIHL.
This is one of the most competitive divisions in the entire state, as six of the seven teams finished last season ranked in the state’s top 20. Seriously, can we get a Southern Red/Mennen Division challenge in the mold of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in college basketball? Two games at the Armory on Friday night, three games at Mennen on Saturday, everybody except two Southern Red teams get a game. Or play two games at Wall on Sunday. It’d be a blast.
Anyway, you almost have to install Bishop Eustace (14-7, #13) and Red Bank Catholic (21-6, #11, #1 W/B) as the twin favorites to start the season. Eustace should be very strong defensively, while RBC finally moves up to the right division. Both teams play challenging schedules, facing 2-4 Gordon teams. St. Augustine Prep (11-7-3, #17) dropped to third last year after consecutive first-place seasons in the Red Division. Middletown North (15-8-3, #14) is an up-and-coming program and should have an edge this season on rival Middletown South (15-11-2, #20). Toms River North (17-4-1, #18, #2 W/B) should have added incentive to play for a high seed in the state tournament after missing out last year. Finally, Monsignor Donovan (15-6-1, #4 W/B) should be very competitive in its first year in the Red Division.
Contenders: Bishop Eustace, Red Bank Catholic, St. Augustine Prep, Middletown North, Toms River North
Pretenders: Middletown South, Monsignor Donovan
I like the new Southern White and am really interested to see how the competition plays out. Everyone is looking forward to seeing Brick Township (2-20-3) play in a regular division, but the Green Dragons have plenty of (Gordon Conference) experience and should be immediate favorites. After that, I’m not sure what to think. Rumson/Fair Haven (11-13-3, #8 W/B) and Brick Memorial (8-12-2) ought to be competitive, and Old Bridge (20-3-2, #5 W/B) could really make some noise. First-year program Gloucester Catholic is an unknown; they probably should have started a division lower. Comparing Toms River East (6-13-3) and Wall (11-10-3) is impossible at this point, but I’ve got a hunch the Knights will make life difficult for everyone, and TRE has a strong schedule.
Contenders: Brick Township, Rumson/Fair Haven, Brick Memorial, Old Bridge
Pretenders: Wall, Toms River East, Gloucester Catholic
Before we got to the Southern Blue, whose idea was it to have the overlapping Shore divisions? Keeping the Bricks in the Shore A at the expense of three Red Division teams makes no sense and really tied scheduling hands. There are only five Southern Conference schools that are not Shore schools; maybe we could just forget the Shore championship for the time being?
Moving on, you have to think this division is going to be a blast. Not necessarily great hockey, but a good time. Somebody needs to fill St. Joseph Hammonton (0-11) in on the non-league scheduling rules; they still only have league games scheduled this year, and it’s tough to find a lot of pride when you have never won a single game. Toms River South (6-10-3) and Point Pleasant (6-15) ought to have the edge in this division, but don’t count out Manasquan (5-15-6). Any team named the Big Blue Warriors has to be taken seriously. I fully admit to knowing virtually nothing about these teams, but both Manasquan and PPB lost by three goals to champion Wall in the Southern Blue tournament last year. Meanwhile, relatively experienced Red Bank Regional (10-12-1) should finish ahead of Southern Regional (2-17-2) and first-year program St. Rose (how ’bout them Purple Aces!), and the Bucs might challenge for a higher place.
Contenders: Toms River South, Point Pleasant Boro, Manasquan
Pretenders: Red Bank Regional, Southern Regional, St. Joseph Hammonton, St. Rose.
This division can’t quite match the Mennen or Southern Red for top-to-bottom competitiveness, but it’s close. Everybody’s mouths are watering for the three-headed monster of Bridgewater Raritan (19-8-2, #16), Ridge (21-4-1, #15), and St. Joseph Metuchen (10-9-2). But really, the Panthers (my top-ranked public school) should be loaded this year, with the unfortunately named Red Devils (they wear green and white) just behind. The other four teams are a bit more mysterious. Verona (19-6-2, #18 W/B) is on my dark-horse list, while Montclair (11-13-3) has jacked up its schedule. West Essex (8-16) and Cranford (7-15-1) will probably be fighting to avoid the inevitable drop to the White Division and will play at least three times after being paired together to open the Cron Tournament. That’s a pet peeve of mine, division teams being paired together (just ask Vernon and West Milly), but it’s unavoidable at the Cron.
Contenders: Bridgewater-Raritan, Ridge, St. Joseph Metuchen, Verona, Montclair
Pretenders: West Essex, Cranford
This is another fun one, mostly thanks to Montgomery (8-12-2) and South Brunswick (10-9-2, #6 W/B), who have left the I-195 scene for the I-78 crowd this year. I also expect Summit (12-13, #19 W/B), Watchung Hills (19-4-2), and MKA (2-15-4) to challenge. And Westfield (13-8-5, #20 W/B). Wow, that’s almost everybody. Seriously, I’m looking forward to this division. I really don’t know if Bernards (2-16-2) is going to be able to compete, but the Mountaineers been competitive in the past when nobody thought they could be.
Contenders: South Brunswick, Summit, Westfield, Montgomery, Watchung Hills, MKA
This should be a wide open division, but demoted Johnson (5-13-2) should be an immediate title contender. Millburn (11-11-3) also plays a tough non-league schedule, while West Orange (6-13-2) and Dayton (13-9-2) are also expected to factor. First-year program Hillsborough is an unknown entity but has a good reputation, while Livingston (9-11-1) and Governor Livingston (1-13-1) just hope to be competitive.
Contenders: Johson, Millburn, Dayton, West Orange
Pretenders: Hillsborough, Livingston, Governor Livingston
This division appears to be a two-horse race between Bayonne (21-2-3, #19) and Clifton (18-5-2). Bayonne was unbeaten in league play last year, and both teams play schedules indicative of a strong team. But up-and-comer Vernon (21-5-1, #11 W/B), state tournament Cinderella Tenafly (14-10-3), and former power St. Joseph Montvale (11-8-3) hope to challenge the top two. Paramus (6-13-2) and Paramus Catholic (4-13-4) are likely to be fighting to avoid relegation.
Contenders: Bayonne, Clifton, St. Joseph Montvale, Vernon
Pretenders: Tenafly, Paramus, Paramus Catholic
The state’s only six-team division has plenty of parity this season. Lakeland (8-15-1) drops down to challenge Northern Hills Conference rival West Milford (10-7-4, #15 W/B), which finished second last year. Ridgewood (15-8-4, #16 W/B) has one of the state’s toughest public-school schedules, while River Dell (12-10-2, #17 W/B) turned heads toward the end of last year. Wayne Valley (8-14) and newcomer Nutley (5-15-1) seem unlikely to challenge.
Contenders: West Milford, Ridgewood, Lakeland, River Dell
Pretenders: Nutley, Wayne Valley
This resurrected division has three first-year programs and four traditional doormats, so it’s anybody’s game. I’m going to stick my neck out and install DePaul Catholic as the favorite, since they had a successful JV program last year. Newton and Sparta should also be respectable first-year teams. Glen Rock (6-12-3) should be the most successful returning program, with Passaic Valley (8-11-2), Hackensack (1-18-1), and East Side (2-14-2) bringing up the rear.
Contenders: DePaul Catholic, Glen Rock, Passaic Valley
Who knows? Newton, Sparta
Pretenders: Hackensack, East Side
Now for the big boys. The private-school powers have succeeded in producing an elite division almost off the radar for many of the state’s public schools. I picked all eight teams in my preseason top 10 (another shameless HNIB plug), and I expect to see the top six spots regularly filled with these teams. For the most part, they can only be reasonably compared against each other.
CBA (25-3-2, #1) won the state title in overtime last year and appears to have plugged the holes on its first line, but I wonder if one line will be enough this year. Delbarton (22-2-6, #2) probably has the best top two lines in the state, but the defending Gordon Cup champions will need time to mature their inexperienced defense corps and goaltenders. Seton Hall Prep (13-8-4, #4) probably has the best chance to challenge last year’s dominant duo behind strong returning players at most positions. Don Bosco Prep (15-11-1, #3) was hit hard by transfers but should be strong in goal and have enough offense to get by. Pope John (8-13-3, #7) really came on toward the end of last year but will need to stay out of the penalty box to be successful. St. Peter’s Prep (11-8-6, #5) lost the corps of its team from the last two years but might have the depth to remain competitive. In the league’s only coaching change, Bergen Catholic (12-10-3, #6) brought back head coach Dan May, who coached the Crusaders to state titles in 2001 and 2003, but one year might be quick for a turnaround. St. John Vianney (7-13-3) finished out of the top 20 last year and will probably need to take advantage of its Shore Conference games.
Contenders: CBA, Delbarton, Seton Hall Prep, Don Bosco Prep
Pretenders: Pope John, St. Peter’s Prep, Bergen Catholic, St. John Vianney
First-year program High Point and Gordon dropout Hudson Catholic (2-21-2) join the four preps as independent teams this year.
And that’s it. Having talked/written more about this season before it started than any other, I’m ready to see some real action that counts in the standings. Let the games begin.
If there are ridiculously illogical posts on the NJO forum, people emailing me about hockey schedules, warm weather, and teams pulling out of the Gordon Conference, it must be summer, right? Okay, not so much.
With word coming down today (via the highschoolsports.net schedules) that Hudson Catholic will be allowed to play an independent schedule, we are officially ready for the 2005-06 season to begin. And while rankings will not begin (as always) until the second Saturday in December, with white/blue rankings arriving even later, it is about time to figure out which teams are legit. So here we go, with the first half of my season preview. I have talked to less than half of the state’s coaches, so cut me some slack come February when one of my pretenders is still unbeaten.
Today, the regional leagues. So we start at the bottom of my standings page with the North Bergen Interscholastic Athletic League. And, before you ask, I know the teams are divided into two divisions. But since they play identical schedules (two games against each league opponent, regardless of division), it is fair game to use a single table.
The league boasts one of the state’s buzz-worthy public schools, Indian Hills (16-3-7, #12 W/B). If you have forgotten one of my favorite stories from last year, the Braves were 11-0-7 (NHL-style shootouts, anyone?) in February last year before head coach Phil Murphy added Northern Red teams St. Joseph Montvale and Clifton to his schedule, and the Braves played respectably but lost both contests. Point made, Murphy has the No. 1 non-league schedule of any public school this year (see the Dec. 1 issue of Hockey Night in Boston for a closer look) and plenty of talent returning to the defending NBIAL Division II champions.
Although Indian Hills has its sights set on the statewide public rankings, there are several NBIAL teams capable of giving the Braves a run for their money. Fair Lawn (18-6-4, #13 W/B) and Ramsey (18-4-4, #14 W/B) each finished just one point behind Indian Hills in the standings last year, and several coaches tabbed Ramapo (10-11-3) to finish in the top half. After that, it seems a virtual pick’em for the remaining six teams. Wayne Hills (9-10-4) won two overtime games to take the Division I playoff title last year.
Contenders: Indian Hills, Fair Lawn, Ramsey, Ramapo
Pretenders: Northern Highlands, Mahwah, Old Tappan, Wayne Hills, Pascack Valley, Demarest
This ought to be the league’s top non-Gordon division once again, although the Southern Red could provide stiff competition. Defending public state champion Morris Knolls (24-3-3, #8) returns four top players and should be the favorite to repeat as Mennen Cup champions, but nothing comes easily in this division. Morristown-Beard (19-5-3, #9) was virtually even with Knolls last year, but its personnel is unproven, and the Crimson will not host any games at Twin Oaks this season. Randolph (20-7-1, #10) will be the deep, fast team it always is, but the Rams still have to answer the scoring question. Chatham (20-7, #12) might have the edge on Randolph, by returning four of its top players. Finally, Morris Hills (13-11-1, #9 W/B) moves up to the Mennen Division for the first time ever but loses only one contributor from last year’s team. All five teams might rely on their respective top lines for offense … the division could come down to one top line (Knolls) against a deeper, more defensive team (Chatham, Randolph).
Contenders: Morris Knolls, Morristown-Beard, Randolph, Chatham, Morris Hills
Pretenders: I know it’s a cop-out, but they’re all legit
This division has changed personalities in the last few years, with the emergence of a stronger Mennen Division. Mendham (12-13) drops from the Mennen Division and should challenge Mountain Lakes (11-11-4, #10 W/B) for the division title. My dark horse is West Morris (7-13-1), which has been steadily adjusting its level of play to the upper divisions. Pingry (9-12-3) has only missed the Mennen Cup playoffs once since 1998, but the Big Blue is 1-6 in tournament play in those years. I know nothing about Jefferson (5-10-6) at this point, but reputation insists they will be trying to avoid the drop to the Haas Division.
Contenders: Mendham, Mountain Lakes, West Morris
Pretenders: Pingry, Jefferson
I’m breaking my own rule here by lumping the two divisions together when they play unbalanced schedules, but it seems a disservice to handicap the Haas ahead of the Charette when the latter was clearly a stronger division last year.
In the Haas, Roxbury (14-9-1) managed an unbeaten league season last year but was awful out of league and was upset by the Haas Cup tournament’s No. 8 seed. The Gaels did give Ridge quite a scare in the state tournament. Expect promoted Pequannock (17-5-4) to be Roxbury’s biggest competition. Defending Haas Cup champion Park Regional (13-10-2) won the title as the lowest seed last year but remains in the Charette Division. Why? Morris County has switched multiple teams plenty of times before. Montville (7-15-1) and Madison (8-11-2) could also have strong seasons.
Contenders: Roxbury, Pequannock, Park Regional, Montville, Madison
Pretenders: Kinnelon, Morristown, Parsippany Hills, Parsippany, Mt. Olive
This is one of the state’s most interesting divisions, with both Princeton (19-5-1, #3 W/B) and Steinert (15-8-2, #7 W/B) moving up to take on established programs Notre Dame (23-3) and Hopewell Valley (17-10). The Little Tigers (great individualism, by the way; it would have been much easier to just copy Princeton University’s nickname and colors, but PHS wears blue) upset imperial Notre Dame in overtime in the MCT final last year. Both upstart publics have adventurous schedules. But props to the veterans as well, as Notre Dame and Hopewell play some good competition. I would like to see Notre Dame against some Gordon Conference opposition now that the big guns have room on their schedules.
Contenders: Notre Dame, Princeton, Steinert, Hopewell Valley
Pretenders: again, a cop-out. This is the beauty of multi-division conferences.
I know next to nothing about the teams in this division as well. WWPS (7-13-2) ought to be the best of the bunch, and I’d rank Hightstown (10-9-2) just behind. I think WWPN (5-13) could really struggle, while Ewing (8-13-2) might not be able to cope with the tougher schedule.
Contenders: WWPS, Hightstown
Pretenders: Ewing, WWPN
Lawrence (3-14-1) takes the drop for the first time. This three-team division is one reason I wish the CVC was split 6/5 instead of 4/4/3. Nottingham (7-12-1) ought to be competitive, but it’s hard to see Hamilton (1-23) being a factor. I like the Hornets’ non-league schedule though; much more inventive than Ewing, Lawrence, or Nottingham.
Contenders: Nottingham, Lawrence
Check back tomorrow for the NJIHL preview.
I got off to a late start for the Randolph-Pope John scrimmage today, and I was further confused when I walked into the rink and did a brief double take – who was Roxbury playing? But it was just Pope John. The Lions, under the direction of former Roxbury goalies Ryan and Corey Brown, wear uniforms that, viewed from behind, are virtually identical to Roxbury’s uniforms. Once I got past that fact, however, I enjoyed the game.
It was sloppier than the RBC-Knolls scrimmage I saw yesterday, especially in terms of penalties … both teams spent plenty of time on the power play. Tied 1-1 after the first period, Pope John got a power play goal on a well-deflected point shot and a scrappy goal that probably should not have counted due to the referee’s whistle to win 3-1. The scoreless third period was an 18-minute stanza with running time, and the scoreboard shot count was 21-20 in favor of Pope John.
The day after Thanksgiving has traditionally been my first hockey game of the season, since I am always in New Jersey for the holiday, and I made it to Aspen Ice in Randolph this afternoon to see Morris Knolls-Red Bank Catholic.
The game felt like a good start to the season, with intensity rarely seen in a preseason scrimmage and fast play despite the inexperience on both sides. Knolls was not at full strength, with only 17 players dressed, and RBC was rotating up to seven defensemen. The Caseys probably had a bit of a territorial and shot advantage, in my mind, and led 1-0 and 2-1 before Knolls tied it up each time. Both teams switched goalies midway through the second period, and the Golden Eagles took a 3-2 lead into the third period before RBC tied the game with a power play goal. The Caseys finally won the game with about 3:30 remaining, although Morris Knolls pulled its goalie down the stretch.
The contest felt like more than a scrimmage, and both coaches seemed cautiously optimistic about their team’s performance. Knolls is back in preseason action against Clifton Saturday night at 8, also in Randolph. RBC scrimmages St. Peter’s Prep Saturday night at 7:30 at the Armory before opening the season December 2.
In a decision unprecedented in its timing, Hudson Catholic officials contacted the New Jersey Ice Hockey League Wednesday with the intention of pulling out of the Gordon Conference for the 2005-06 season, sources said late Wednesday night. The all-boys school in Jersey City has roughly 450 students but is struggling to maintain a competitive hockey roster, with only 15 players this season. Current reports have the Hawks playing an independent schedule this year and rejoining the NJIHL in a lower division for 2006-07.
Hudson Catholic, the 2000 state champion, finished last season with a 2-21-2 record. A charter member of the state’s elite Gordon Conference, the Hawks have spent four seasons in the league, accumulating a 21-63-13 record and just one season of more than four wins.
Hudson Catholic becomes the fourth school to leave the Gordon Conference, which began with eight teams in the 2001-02 season, but the first to do so at such a late date. Charter members Bishop Eustace (2003-04), St. Joseph Metuchen (2004-05), and Brick Township (2005-06), the lone public school, elected to leave the league in past summer offseasons. The league had ten teams in 2004-05 but now returns to its normal total of eight, each with an automatic bid to the NJSIAA tournament. Bergen Catholic, Christian Brothers, Saint John Vianney, and Seton Hall Prep are the other charter members. The more recent additions are Don Bosco Prep (2003-04) and Delbarton, Pope John, and St. Peter’s Prep (2004-05).
Welcome to my New Jersey high school ice hockey blog. I am often frustrated by the lack of original content available online about hockey in the Garden State, so I plan to give everybody something to read this season.
As most people familiar with my site know, I have been following and tracking New Jersey high school ice hockey since 1991, publicly since 1996. I kept up with the scene in college while writing for Hockey Night in Boston, recording scores and standings for the entire state. Since my real job does not extend to the baseball offseason, I am living in Morristown this winter and hope to be able to follow the entire season. This blog will be up and running as long as I am in New Jersey.
The blog will be much more personal than the rest of the njhockey.org site. I will try to write about hockey every day, but you will probably also read about soccer, the NFL, college football, and whatever else I feel like writing about. The blog will mostly consist of game recaps, statistical analyses, notes, stories, and impressions from games I see working at Mennen Arena and around the state. But I hope to be blogging every day or every other day during the season, so be ready for December.