Coming from a family with two brothers who have played on the Middletown High School North ice hockey team, senior forward Kevin Felice has a pretty good idea by now what to expect from the start of the season.
This year has been a little bit different, as the Lions come off a memorable run to their first NJSIAA Public B state championship last season in a 5-4 victory over Ramsey High School at the Prudential Center in Newark. And the momentum has not slowed, as they are off to a 6-0 start, including a 4-1 rout of Howell High School in a showdown of two state finalists and top 20 ranked teams. Howell lost to Randolph High School, 2-1, in the Public A finals last season and went into the early season game with a No. 20 state ranking. Middletown North was ranked No. 7.
“We have confidence but in the big games, can we push through?” Felice asked, rhetorically.
That question was answered against Howell, as the Lions rallied from an early 1- 0 deficit, with Felice scoring the final goal.
On Dec. 1, Middletown North scored a 4-3 victory over Middletown High School South, with Vin Tomassetti scoring the deciding goal early in the third period after Middletown South cut a 3-0 deficit to 3-2 on goals by Craig Bahrs and Deven Ralph. It’s all made the opening up of the new rink in town even more worthwhile, and Felice said he sees even more support from the school at games.
“I think we’re off to a great start that’s built off tenacity,” Felice said. “We have a big mindset off the state championship.” It’s how much we’re committed to each other. Bobby Hampton and Khristian Acosta are scoring the goals, but the defense is just as committed.”
“Experience will help us,” coach Matt Clemente said. “We’re getting every team’s best game now. It’s just keeping our cool and continuing to work hard.”
Six integral players to last year’s success are graduated, including forwards Tim Felice, starting goalie Mike Corella and defensemen Tom Terranova — a big points producer.
But senior goalie Anthony Manfredi saw enough action and started at the end of the season to make a smooth move into regular action, although he had to sit out two recent games to serve a game misconduct suspension. Sophomore Jake Frontera stepped in. Frontera made 17 saves in a 6-2 victory over Manalapan High School Dec. 8, when the Lions answered back from an early 1-0 deficit with five unanswered goals — three scored by Acosta.
Acosta is an unwelcome player in Freehold these days after two games in which he was explosive last week after Manfredi returned to action.
Acosta poured in nine goals and had five assists between victories against Freehold Township High School, 11-3, Dec. 15 and Freehold-Raritan, 12-1, Dec. 18.
Acosta said he knew he had to further step up his performance and leadership because Hampton was in Chicago last week playing with the USHL.
“They were great team wins,” Acosta said.
Manfredi and Hampton, the Shore Conference B North Player of the Year last season, transferred to Middletown North last season, and both need to be in top form in the weeks ahead. Middletown North plays three state-caliber teams in four days in the Essex County Tournament at South Mountain Arena in West Orange against Montville Township High School at 12:45 p.m. Dec. 27, Seton Hall Preparatory School at 5:15 p.m. Dec. 28 and St. Joseph High School of Montvale at 5:15 p.m. Dec. 30.
The Lions’ next game is Jan. 5 against Shore Conference A North rival Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) in a battle of defending state champions. CBA won Non- Public A last year.
“All of those teams are going for us. We have a target on us every time,” Acosta said. “These will be big tests to see how tight we are as a team.”
But Acosta said this team feels a little different this year because a lot of seniors graduated after last season.
“It’s great any time you have a chance to play the No. 1 team in the state (CBA), and it will be a good way to measure where we are,” Clemente said. “You can’t make mistakes because if you make one, it’ll hurt you.”
But Clemente said wearing the mantle of defending state champion inspires this year’s group.
“We’re returning our core group of guys who won it last year and are focused to do it again,” Clemente said. “Now they understand what it takes.”
Acosta overtook Terranova on the school’s all-time career points list. Terranova set the mark at 137 last season, but a four-point effort from Acosta against Manalapan pushed him two ahead at 139. Acosta set the new record the same day one year later from when Terranova did it.
Acosta, who is headed next fall to Quinnipiac University, accumulated 74 points last season. He’s centering the first line with Felice and junior John Dinnocenzo. Hampton, who is headed to NCAA Division I power Northeastern University, is flanked by senior Tomassetti, who tallied 50 points last season, and sophomore Justin Skelly.
As for the defense, senior Ryan Davidson is the only player on the first two units with proven experience, and he starts alongside sophomore Kyle Goworak. Kevin Toland, a senior sidelined last season with a wrist injury, and junior Brian Colucci are on the second unit. Freshman John Hollard also plays on defense.
“Our forward lines have done a really good job,” Clemente said. “They’re pretty deep — a little more than last year. They put in some work over the summer to get better and have a lot more confidence.”
Senior Sean Crimmins and junior Evan Hall are backup forwards.