Middlesex Community College’s Nazjae Imes, left, looks for an open teammate during the team’s Dec. 3 game against the Community College of Philadelphia in Edison. Middlesex scored 104 points in the victory. The women’s basketball team is off to a 6-1 start overall and 6-0 in Region 19 play.
It might seem like the St. Joseph High
School of Metuchen ice hockey team, a member of the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC), inflates its record each season at the expense of league opponents.
That is far from the case. True, the Falcons are far and away the dominant program in the GMC and have not dropped a conference game in two years. Their streak of GMC tournament titles currently stands at four.
The six other members of the conference are, of course, on the schedule, but the rest of the Falcons’ games are against some of the best programs in the state, in addition to out-of-state matches. St. Joe’s goal is, and always has been, to prepare for the state tournament, which begins in February.
Head coach Ryan Carter stays away from predicting how his team will finish.
“Our goal is to improve every day. The wins and championships are by-products of this process,” he said. “We will work relentlessly hard in finding a way to improve every day.”
Carter’s statement reveals why St. Joe’s has maintained a high level of consistency through the years. The roster has been blessed with outstanding talent and this year is no exception with the likes of seniors Michael Nisky, Ryan Hille, Reece Young, Nick Sondej, Mike Sabella, Joe Mortillaro, Thomas Bauer, Travis Literate and Thomas Dietzel. Besides being the team leaders in scoring and defense, it is the responsibility of the upperclassmen to impress upon the new members of the team that success only comes through hard work.
“This not only extends to the varsity but junior varsity,” Carter said. “High school hockey has a defined shelf life, and players need to take advantage of their opportunities. The two things our seniors do that make us different than other programs is that they believe in each other and our ability. When a group of student-athletes embrace that mindset, it becomes infectious and everyone buys into that immediately.”
The results speak for themselves. Coming off a year in which St. Joe’s finished with a 17- 3-2 record, the Falcons dominated Woodbridge High School, 12-2, in the season-opener and were scheduled to meet Colonia High School Dec. 7. The Falcons step outside the GMC for games against Montclair Kimberley Academy Dec. 9 and Red Bank Catholic High School Dec. 11 to close out the week.
Nisky will join a long list of players who went on to play beyond high school. Before the season began, the senior had 40 career goals and 165 points, and he posted two assists in the Falcons’ victory over Woodbridge. In spring 2014, the senior was drafted by the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League (USHL), which is considered the top junior development league in the country. That does not preclude Nisky, an outstanding student, won’t end up with a full college scholarship at some prestigious institution.
For their careers, Bauer has registered 30 goals and 75 points, Mortillaro has 17 goals and 36 points, Young has five goals and 18 points, Sondej has nine goals and 29 points and Hille has four goals and seven points.
“I do think hockey is continuing to grow in the GMC, but the process has been slow,” he said. “Every GMC team can now say they have multiple athletes that play travel hockey, which is a huge improvement from a few years ago. I believe the sport will continue to grow, but it is still going to take time.”
That’s the position the Edison High School hockey program finds itself in. The Eagles, which supplement its roster from crosstown J.P. Stevens High School, opened the season with two losses — 5-3 to the Frisch School and 14-7 to South Brunswick High School. This follows last year, when Edison finished with a 3-17 record.
A major bright spot is the play of junior forward Robert DeStefano, who finished with 38 goals last season, which was tops for New Jersey high school players returning this year. He has four goals in the early going, including a hat trick against South Brunswick. Seniors Mike Tutalo (three goals) and Tom Wales return to the blue line and provide Edison with size and experience. Also returning are forwards Chuck Youse (seven goals, eight assists last year) and Dan Lesch (five goals last season). Freshman Anthony Gardner is a solid addition and has a goal and an assist. Sophomore Parker Mckenna is now the full-time goaltender after part-time duty a year ago.
“We’ve hit a bit of a lull, numbers-wise, in town,” coach Russ Berner said. “But the talent level of our players continues to increase. Our regular starting five can compete with most teams in conference, but we need to develop depth from within, and that takes time.”
Berner said the program is somewhat handcuffed by the lack of a youth program, which results in some players taking to the ice for the first time once they join the team.
“That’s a disadvantage compared to most of the teams in the conference, where the players have skated for almost a decade,” Berner said. “But on the positive side, kids get the opportunity to play hockey when they might otherwise not have the opportunity.”
Moving forward, Berner said the program will improve with an increased emphasis on involving more players in hockey when they are of middle school age when they continue their development and be ready when they enter high school.