By Wayne Witkowski
Middletown High School North’s ice hockey team has gotten much of the attention around its town this season, as the defending NJSIAA Public B champions are 11-1-1, including a 4-3 victory over Middletown High School South early in the season.
But reputations and bragging rights, as well as the Mayor’s Cup, are on the line again Feb. 5 when the two teams meet at Middletown Ice World. The game starts at 5:45 p.m.
Middletown South also cannot be overlooked with an 8-3-2 record and a four-game winning streak since a 7-4 loss to Jackson Liberty High School.
“We’re still trying to hit our stride,” Middletown South coach Tony Nemati said. “We’ve had breaks in our schedule, players missing time with illness and then some who have to travel for their club teams.”
Middletown South strung together victories over St. Rose High School, 4-1, Jan. 29; Manasquan High School, 10-0, Jan. 27; Red Bank Regional High School, 4-1, Jan. 26; and Ocean Township High School, 6-4, Jan. 19.
Gavin Gulash, who leads the Eagles with 18 goals coming into this week, scored one of the three goals in the first period against St. Rose, had four goals and two assists against Manasquan, and he and Ryan Demilia each scored a goal in the third period against Red Bank Regional to break open a 2-1 lead. Demilia has 10 goals, and Ryan Lambert follows with eight.
Middletown North comes off a 12-3 victory over Manalapan High School Jan. 29 on hat tricks by Khristian Acosta, Kevin Felice and Bob Hampton and a 10-0 blitz of Freehold High School the following day, when Felice scored two goals and eight other players struck for one. Goalie Anthony Manfredi had the shutout.
Acosta leads the way with 23 goals, followed by Felice (18) and Vincent Tomasetti (11).
“Defensively, players have stepped up this year and helped our freshman goaltender acclimate to varsity,” Nemati said of Middletown South’s goalie, Clay Simonsen. Adam Bloodgood, the other goalie, also is a freshman. “We project they’ll get better and better over time.”
Simonsen will need to come up big against an explosive Middletown North arsenal intact from last season.
“The offense is playing very well, but the defense is ahead of it,” Nemati said. “There’s more consistency there.”
Nemati said it’s been a group effort by some experienced defensemen, although he also credits Matt Torre, a junior, for moving back from forward to defense this season.
“He’s been very steady and has played well back there,” Nemati said.
He also credits sophomore Mike Racioppi, who has played forward and on defense at different times during this season.
“He’s been one of our top defenseman and has been one of our stronger forwards when we’ve asked him to play there,” Nemati said.
The coach also credits Gulash for playing unselfishly despite being one of the top scorers — passing up shots for making the good pass to an open teammate for a good scoring opportunity. Lambert, who has assisted on many goals, and Demilia, who has scored timely goals, have also contributed.
They’ll be needed because Middletown North can be explosive if it falls behind.
Before that game, Middletown South had a tough warmup scheduled for Feb. 2 when it went on the road to play a solid Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School team, which is 9-3-2 but comes off a 6-4 loss to Red Bank Catholic High School.