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Middletown teams nearing tournaments playing strong hockey

By Wayne Witkowski

Middletown High School South and Middletown High School North are playing some of their best ice hockey at the end of the season while getting more of their players involved as they gear up for tournaments and the eagerly awaited Mayor’s Cup at Middletown Ice World at 6:15 p.m. Feb 10.

Middletown South beat Middletown North, 7-3, in their regular-season opener Nov. 29.

Middletown South is off to its best start in many years at 13-3-1. It comes into this week off a 7-2 victory over Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School. Gavin Gulash and Ryan D’Emilia each scored twice, and goaltender Clay Simonsen made 23 saves.

Middletown South is 10-1-1 in the last 12 games, losing to Wall High School, 5-2, Jan. 25 and tying Kinnelon High School, 5-5, in the previous game Jan. 21. The Eagles were scheduled to play Montgomery High School (9-6-3) Feb. 1 and host Livingston High School (14-3-2) at 7:15 p.m. Feb. 7 prior to the Mayor’s Cup game. Montgomery beat Livingston, 3-0, earlier in the season.

“This group has been together logging major minutes for four years, and our core group of sophomores and juniors have been together a while,” Middletown South coach Tony Nemati said. “We’re starting to get the younger guys more time in games. There are times we’ve called on kids and they’ve stepped up and scored big goals. I like what we see. They’re starting to contribute more.

“If we continue to play this way, I feel very good about our chances of making a good run [in the tournaments].”

Middletown North (7-4-4) is 3-0-1 in its last four games, including a 4-1 victory over Jackson Memorial High School Jan. 24 and a 3-3 tie with Princeton High School Jan. 25. It comes into the week off a 4-2 victory over St. Rose High School Jan. 27.

Middletown North’s standout defenseman, Mike Grazioso, suffered a leg injury against Jackson Memorial, but different players are ready to increase their roles, including John Hallard, Brian Colucci, Ryan Crane and Kyle Goworski in front of veteran goaltender Anthony Manfredi.

“The kids are starting to realize you win with defense and goaltending,” Middletown North coach Matt Clemente said. “If we score three goals, it is enough because we’re not able to score five or six goals like we did a few years ago (Middletown North won a state title two seasons ago). We have to be smart with the puck and play with our personnel to our strength.”

Middletown North has outscored opponents, 58-48, coming into this week.

Middletown South has a 90-40 edge, as D’Emilia and Gulash lead the way with 16 and 15 goals, respectively, and Ryan Lambert has 12.

Middletown North played Wall (10-5-2) Jan. 31 and has games at Howell High School (6-9-3) at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 2 and at Marlboro High School (9-6-2) at 6:15 p.m. Feb. 7 before the Mayor’s Cup game.

Cutoffs for the Shore Conference cups are Feb. 5 and the following week for the state tournament.

“We’re playing better and better. We’ve played really well the last couple of games,” Clemente said. “Jackson Memorial took 42 shots and came in with 11 wins and we beat them. And after that was Princeton, which had 12 wins, and we were winning that game, 2-0, before we tied. It took a while to find our identity — what we need to do in games.

“Early in this season, we relied on John Dinnocenzo, John Hallard and Justin Skelly [for goals], and now there’s more balanced scoring and secondary scoring. Against Princeton, Ryan Crane got his first goal of the year. Against St. Rose, Anthony Tavares got his second goal of the year and Kyle Goworski got his first. We’re getting secondary scoring.”

Middletown South leads the Shore Conference A North Division at 6-1. Middletown North is 3-2.

Mike Racioppi centers the first line for Middletown South with Gulash and Nick Lioudakis. Lambert, who leads the team with 20 assists, centers the second line with D’Emilia and Devon Ralph. Nemati said the line combinations at times are interchangeable.

The defense is an older group, with senior Travis Yawger and junior Joe Guercio starting and senior Greg Johnson and freshman Demetri Forand getting a lot of minutes. Seniors Chris Falzone and Matt Torre and junior Bob Matthews provide solid depth.

Simonsen has a .907 save percentage but has eager and talented backups in sophomore Adam Bloodgood, who has played well in spot action, and freshman Sean Caswell, who was in the net with eight saves in a 10-0 victory over Brick Township High School Dec. 30 and was in goal against Kinnelon.

Middletown South has high hopes of surpassing last season when it lost, 6-5, to Southern Regional High School in the Dowd Cup finals and dropped its state tournament opener to perennial power Roxbury High School. Nemati points to a signature 5-0 victory over Hunterdon Central Regional High School Dec. 28.

“If we play that way,we’ll be a difficult team to beat,” he said. “We’re doing the little things and the hard things — doing a lot of things well.”

Middletown North also has had interchangeable player combinations. Dinnocenzo leads the way with 11 goals and 10 assists, followed by Hallard with nine goals and 11 assists and Skelly with eight goals and 13 assists.

Clemente said his Middletown North team needs to continue to play consistently the rest of the way, including in the Mayor’s Cup game, and to get an even stronger effort in goal from Manfredi, who has a .903 save percentage.

“[Middletown South knows] how to take away the leading players so the complementary players have to step up,” Clemente said. “We need to focus on the entire 45 minutes in our games. We’ve played poorly at the start of games and relied on the third period to pull games out or else time ran out. We do not want to give teams extra chances with stupid, unnecessary penalties and stupid plays.”

Clemente said his team has shown that it can play evenly against any team on any night.

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