The semifinals of New Jersey’s three state tournaments will be played Wednesday and Thursday at Codey (née South Mountain) Arena in West Orange, and for the first time in years, they will have a distinctly South Jersey flair to them.
Five schools from south of Somerset County have qualified among the state’s final 12 schools (eight public, four private) and three of those are Shore Conference public schools, both the highest totals since 2002, when all public schools played in one tournament.
Three of the six matchups will involve a North vs. South component, with one all-Shore and two all-Northern matches rounding out the field as six teams will advance to Monday’s championship games at the Prudential Center in Newark.
Thursday – 6:30 p.m. – No. 1 Delbarton vs. No. 4 Bishop Eustace
Thursday – 8:30 p.m. – No. 3 CBA vs. No. 10 Bergen Catholic
The private bracket is the clearest-cut, with favorites Delbarton (22-4-1), CBA (21-5-0), and Bishop Eustace (14-6-1) joined by No. 10 seed Bergen Catholic (14-11-1), which would have been seeded much higher had even one more week of results been considered.
After beating highly-regarded St. Joseph Metuchen (17-3-3) in the Round of 16, Bergen Catholic faced a Bergen County rival, but not the one it expected. Instead of a fifth game against No. 2 seed Don Bosco Prep (11-9-4), which Bergen Catholic had just beaten in the Gordon Cup playoffs, the quarterfinals saw Bergen Catholic face St. Joseph Montvale (17-7-2), which stunned Don Bosco Prep 5-2 in the Round of 16 behind 42 saves from goalie Robbie Massimi. Nevertheless, Bergen Catholic improved to 7-1 in its last eight games with a 3-1 win over the Green Knights on goals from Bryan Hallenbeck, Zach Larsen, and Evan Wisocky.
The favorites did not have things easy. Delbarton needed two third-period goals from Kevin Obssuth to get past St. Peter’s Prep (9-11-2) 3-0, while CBA downed Mennen Cup champion Morristown-Beard (16-7-4) 7-3 in a rematch of last year’s final. Bishop Eustace might have had the easiest path, beating 12th-seeded Pope John (10-12-2) 9-2 in the quarterfinals after the Lions knocked off No. 5 St. Augustine Prep (9-8-4) 5-0 in their opening game.
Public A Tournament
Wednesday – 4:30 p.m. – No. 5 Howell vs. No. 9 Southern Regional
Thursday – 4:30 p.m. – No. 2 Randolph vs. No. 3 Ridge
The biggest surprise in the Public A tournament came on Monday, when Southern Regional (17-4-4), a Shore Conference program in only its 11th season and with only two prior state-tournament wins, stunned undefeated and top-seeded Bridgewater-Raritan (22-1-3), which had lost in the last two Public A championship games, with a 4-2 road win.
State-tournament pedigrees notwithstanding, the result was not as shocking as it looks at first glance. The teams played in January, with Southern becoming the first team to score three goals against Bridgewater all season but losing 5-3 due to four power-play goals. Monday’s game looked like more of the same, as Southern was whistled for two first-period penalties and trailed 2-0. But goalie Nicholas Karp made 28 saves to keep the Rams in the game, and second-period goals from Brandon Biegan and T.J. Hawkins tied the score. Brian Aji’s wrist shot from the slot midway through the final stanza gave Southern the lead and, eventually, the biggest win in school history.
Southern’s semifinal opponent will be a relatively familiar South Jersey face, but the teams have never played a competitive game against each other. Howell (21-4-0) is an even younger program, albeit one that has experienced more success (debuting in 2009, reaching the Public A quarterfinals in 2010 and 2014). After losing only to private schools and a wild division game, the Rebels’ relatively tame non-league schedule left them seeded behind defending Public A champion Morris Knolls (14-9-1). Howell’s skill in front of net proved decisive in that matchup, as the Rebels rolled over Knolls 5-1 despite a slim 27-26 shot advantage. Kyle Hallbauer (40-42-82), the state’s leading scorer, celebrated his birthday with one goal and three assists, with Jack Kosinski (24-27-51) scoring twice and Bobby Dovenero making 25 saves.
The other two semifinalists are Randolph (17-5-3), making its 11th consecutive appearance in the Public or Public A semifinals, and Ridge (19-5-4), making its fifth appearance in the last nine years. Both still managed to impress in reaching the semifinals. Randolph outshot Westfield (15-6-2) by a 19-0 margin in the first period and rolled to an 8-1 win behind four-point nights from Dan Janson (17-11-28) and Michael Slavin (26-18-44). Ridge took down 2014 Public B champion Morristown (13-12-3), which had reached the state final in each of the last three years by a 5-3 margin, thanks in part to 26 saves from Sean Sweeney and two goals in the third period from Gavin Kirkwood to break a 2-2 tie.
Public B Tournament
Wednesday – 6:30 p.m. – No. 1 Chatham vs. No. 4 Middletown North
Wednesday – 8:30 p.m. – No. 2 Ramsey vs. No. 3 Glen Rock
The seeds held up in Public B, but it was far from routine. 2011 and 2013 champion Chatham (15-3-5) had the easiest route, beating Shore B champion Middletown South (18-6-1) by a 5-1 count, with Ryan Barnett scoring twice. The Cougars will now face the other team from Middletown and a far more dangerous opponent. Middletown North (16-5-4) boasts one of the state’s top lines and absolutely demolished Kinnelon (11-11-3) in an 11-4 rout on Monday that included three shorthanded goals in the game’s first 4:15. Bobby Hampton (32-16-48 since mid-January) and Khristian Acosta (30-40-70) put up five points apiece. To put Monday’s rout in perspective, Chatham and Kinnelon played twice during the regular season. The combined score was 4-2, with Chatham going 1-0-1 in the two games.
Wednesday’s clash of Middletown North’s offense (8 goals per game since Hampton became eligible) against Chatham’s defense (1.82 gaa) is a classic.
The other side of the bracket features Bergen County rivals who know each other well. Ramsey (24-3-1) is on a mission to make up for its defeat in last year’s Public B title game. The Rams are led by Alex Whelan (46-32-78), who has scored in 16 consecutive games and 18 of 19 since the Rams suffered back-to-back 1-0 losses in late December. Whelan was one of seven different players who scored in Ramsey’s 7-2 win over 10th-seeded Madison (27-2) on Monday. The Haas Cup champion Dodgers upset No. 7 Cranford in the Round of 16 and were trying to equal Ramsey’s public-school state record of 28 wins in a single season.
Glen Rock (21-3-3) is no surprise as a semifinalist, but the Panthers needed high drama to scrape past Mahwah 5-4 in the Round of 16 on a late Luke Visconti goal and almost wound up in a shootout against Nutley (18-6) in Monday’s quarterfinal. Raiders goalie Joe Hoarle made 58 saves and had his team just 56 seconds away from a shootout before Tom LaMacchia struck to send Glen Rock to the semifinals. It will be the second semifinal of the year between Ramsey and Glen Rock; the two tangled in January in the Bergen County semifinals, with Ramsey winning in overtime on a Whelan goal.
* The three state finals will be held on Monday, March 9th at the Prudential Center in Newark, home of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.