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Jackson ice hockey teams ready to build on division championship seasons

By Wayne Witkowski

Jackson Township’s two high school ice hockey teams — Jackson Memorial High School and Jackson Liberty High School — are preparing to defend their first division championships in their respective histories, but they are going about it in different ways.

Jackson Liberty is rebuilding from a 14-6-3 team that won the Shore Conference B Division as it prepares for its opener Dec. 2 against Princeton High School and a game the following day against Ridgewood High School. Both games are at Jackson Liberty’s home rink in Howell. The Lions ended their season in a 3-1 loss to Summit High School in their NJSIAA Public B opener.

“I think we can contend. Talent-wise there’s no reason why we can’t unless we don’t play as a team,” coach Kyle Weise said. “Talent-wise, we’re on the same page as last year.”

Jackson Memorial lost its two leading scorers to graduation in Mike Termine, who logged 19 goals and 22 assists, and Chris Petrone, who had 13 goals and 14 assists. They keynoted the team’s 12-8-3 Shore Conference A South championship season and the team’s thrilling showing in the NJSIAA Public A tournament, where it opened with a 4-3 overtime victory over Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School before losing, 2-1, in overtime to Morris Knolls High School.

Jackson Memorial opens Nov. 27 against state power Mahwah High School at the Ice Vault in Wayne. It will play home games at the Howell rink.

“I think we’re going to be as good as last year, maybe potentially a little better,” coach Larry Clayton said.

Jackson Liberty beat Jackson Memorial, 5-2, in a regular-season game late last season.

For the Lions, Chris Boyce, who saw spot action in goal last season, will replace graduated Chris Stefanowicz, who allowed 46 goals last season. It’s a tall order to also replace departed players Joe Low, who recorded 25 goals and 26 assists, and Leszek Gronowski, who had 19 goals and 12 assists.

Senior Joe D’Andrea, with 17 goals and 11 assists, and sophomore Nick Labianca, with 12 goals and 23 assists, are the top returning players statistically from last year, as Weise remains upbeat.

“Our strength probably will be our offense,” Weise said. “We have two lines that can score consistently. Defensively, we need time to come together and get the system running.”

Labianca will center the first line with senior right wing D’Andrea.

“We’re expecting him to carry the mantle of scoring leader,” Weise said of D’Andrea. “Labianca had a good year, and we’re hoping for more of the same.”

Graduated defensemen Nick Uliano and Tyler Melnick led the team in that area of the ice last season, and Weise said it will be tough to fill that void.

Two defensemen last year could move up to forward: sophomore Joe Granza and senior Ryan Verile. Weise said emphatically that freshman forward Zach D’Andrea (Joe’s brother) is going to be a good player.

Seniors Matt Meyer and Ryan Abline and junior Joe Rugraber are defensemen.

“On the back end, we’re going to be different in what we do against the attack,” Weise said. “We’re not young in age, but we’re a little inexperienced and we’ll rely on being a solid all-around team.”

As for Jackson Memorial, it will again turn to junior Matt Pousson, who had a save percentage of .907 in goal, and explosive scoring senior defenseman Trevor Cear, who had 19 goals and 17 assists. Another dangerous scoring defenseman, Justin Meyer graduated after putting nine shots into the net, but Clayton is not overly concerned with a deep lineup of defensemen, including seniors Spencer Swain and Cody Jablinski, junior Connor Lowrey and sophomore James Termine.

“This team has been playing together quite a while between club and high school,” said Clayton, who has Mark Likes as his assistant head coach. “They get along together, and we have some top tier players. But we’re really balanced this season. Matt Pousson should be even better in goal, and we have some incoming freshmen who can compete for playing time immediately.”

Although Clayton said it looks like his division again will be very tough, the out-of-conference games also are tough against Middletown High School North, Middletown High School South and Point Pleasant Borough High School.

The team is deep at forward with seniors Joe Jablonski III, Kyle Lally, Willie Petterson and Nicholas Boyle, who was injured most of last season; juniors Cameron Satkowski and Mike Krzyzewski; and sophomore Nick Swain. There’s also junior Noah Sampson, who did not play last season.

“I think this group of kids was happy to bring home the first conference banner,” Clayton said. “They recognize the talent to compete and do better, and they are [ready] to defend the A South title, and we’d like to go farther in the Shore Conference Tournament and deeper into the state tournament with high-level hockey against good teams. I think they’re ready to do that.”

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