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New Jersey Tourney Preview: 81 teams, three divisions, one goal

Breaking up public schools into Public A and Public B is supposed to be easy. The largest 50 percent (of all hockey-playing programs, not just those who qualify for the postseason) are eligible for Public A, and the smallest 50 percent are eligible for Public B.

Yet going into tomorrow’s seeding meeting for the NJSIAA hockey tournaments, the big question from the coach of almost every public-school contender was: “Which bracket is Morristown in?”

The Colonials have reached three consecutive public state finals, losing in the Public A final in 2012, losing in the Public B final in 2013, and winning the Public B championship last year. After the school’s enrollment figure increased from 1,083 to 1,139 this year (it has ranged from 1,033 to 1,139 in the last four years), it was expected to be a close call.

Despite that enrollment increase, the addition of several co-op programs (schools are grouped by their combined enrollment figure), including one only confirmed in November, kept Morristown in the bottom half of hockey-playing public schools – barely. With 99 public-school programs, Morristown ranked 51st in enrollment, just behind Scotch Plains-Fanwood, which was the “bubble school” on the border between Public A and Public B.

A Twitter post from @NJ_Hockey on November 17, 2014 proclaimed: Mount Olive / Hopatcong move to Pub A. By my calculations, that puts Morristown definitely in Pub B. Scotch Plains now on bubble.

The NJSIAA’s initial lists of the breakdown, both in October and in early 2015, listed Morristown in Public A. Yet the initial list was calculated with last year’s enrollment figures, and both lists omitted several Shore Conference schools and did not accurately reflect several co-op changes.

So when live media updates from the seeding committee meeting revealed that Morristown was being seeded in Public A, public-school coaches from around the state were surprised. One who was not taken aback was Morristown head coach Bobby Jones, who had prepared his team for either scenario.

“I thought that, because the state alignments were already revised twice, there was a chance we would remain in Public A,” Jones said. “Just in case, we scheduled the best of both divisions. I had confirmed with my athletic director in January that we were Public A.”

In the end, Morristown was seeded sixth in Public A, while it certainly would have been seeded at least fifth in Public B. The Public B bracket is thought to be a deeper field, however (co-ops have watered down the Public A ranks), and that may have played a role in the committee’s ultimate decision to place Morristown in Public A.

“I feel like we change the make-up of both tournaments and are in a very unique position,” Jones said. “I had many coaches contact me to find out which group we would be in.”

According to on-site reports, the decisive factor was that the January list (which contained other mistakes) listed the Colonials in Public A. Morristown would have been the only team in Public B with an enrollment figure greater than 1,100 (the next highest is Woodbridge at 1,087).

The following Twitter posts on February 17 confirmed Morristown’s Public A status:

@NJ_Hockey: Looking at the classifications, if Morristown was Public B, it'd be the largest school and only one with an enrollment over 1100. @RichardGrecoHS

And

@NJ_Hockey: It is a split decision. They followed what the NJSIAA put out at the beginning of the season. @RichardGrecoHS

Jones said he had no particular preference as to which bracket contained his Colonials; they went 1-4 vs. Public B’s top four and 3-3-1 vs. the top quartet in Public A, including a 4-2 February loss to No. 3 Ridge, a potential quarterfinal opponent.

“We may have gotten a [better] seed in Public B, but I don’t mind our bracket. It will be tough with the two Skyland Conference teams and Randolph, but so was our bracket for the last three years.”

Public A

Despite being the most talked-about team of the seeding process, Morristown is not favored to even reach the Prudential Center in Newark, where all three state championship games will be played March 9.

The Public A field is topped by a familiar quartet: at No. 1, unbeaten Bridgewater-Raritan (20-0-3), which lost the last two state championship games, while conference rival Ridge (17-4-4) came in at No. 3. The two were scheduled to meet for the Skyland Conference title on Saturday night.

Nos. 2 and 4 are the teams that beat Bridgewater in recent years, with 2013 champion Randolph (15-5-3) at No. 2 and defending champion Morris Knolls (13-8-1 at No. 4). Growing Shore Conference power Howell (18-4), which has lost only one game to a private school this year, earned the No. 5 seed and will try to break the stranglehold currently enjoyed by teams from Morris and Somerset counties.

The field weakens sharply after the top six, with Hunterdon Central, Montclair, Southern Regional, and Westfield rounding out the top 10 in the 28-team bracket.

Bayonne, a once-elite program that has fallen on hard times, qualified for its first state tournament since 2011 under first-year head coach Dave McKenna, a former state scoring champ at Bayonne in 1997. The Bees have not won a state-tournament game since 2005 and have not reached the quarterfinals since reaching back-to-back finals in 2000-01, winning the public state championship in 2000.

Monroe also reached the tournament for the first time since 2011, while Passaic Valley / Cedar Grove is making its first appearance since 2010, 1993 overall state champion Toms River North its first since 2009, and Watchung Hills qualified for the first time since reaching the public final in 2008.

Public B

In the smaller-school ranks, the top five features two teams from Morris County, two teams from Bergen County, and an upstart from the Shore, but the field appears deeper here, with extended quality through the top 8-10 teams.

Chatham (12-3-5) is the top seed for the third time in five years, but the 2011 champion Cougars have looked vulnerable lately, finally losing to a public school on Feb. 3 (Morris Knolls) and getting rocked 5-0 by Morristown-Beard in Thursday’s Mennen Cup final, running the Cougars’ county-title drought to 34 years. That said, Chatham has not lost to a Public B opponent this year but was held to a pair of ties.

Ramsey (21-3-1) is the second seed and many people’s favorite; the Rams lost just 2-1 to Gordon Conference power Don Bosco Prep in the Bergen County Tournament final and have seemed on a season-long mission to avenge last year’s 1-0 upset loss to Morristown in the final. Their biggest hurdle could come in the semifinals, however, as No. 3 Glen Rock (18-3-3) took Ramsey to overtime in their January BCT semifinal and has posted a series of impressive non-league wins.

No. 4 Middletown North (13-5-4) is 8-1-1 against public schools since transfers became eligible in January while No. 5 Kinnelon (9-10-3) is battle-tested after playing in the state’s toughest division. No. 6 Summit (14-10) played an extremely difficult non-league schedule, while its division rival, No. 7 Cranford (13-7-2) posted wins over both Glen Rock and Morristown. Summit opens with a high-profile rematch of its 2012 state championship triumph, taking on No. 27 Tenafly in a first-round game.

Even Nos. 8-10 have quality; No. 8 Middletown South (16-5-1) beat rival Middletown North in February, No. 9 Wayne Hills (12-7-2) beat Morristown during the season, and No. 10 Madison (24-1) suffered its only setback against the Colonials in February, losing on a pair of power-play goals in the final stanza.

The rest of the 34-team field contains plenty of potential for upsets, and it also includes several great stories. Shore schools Jackson Liberty (program started 2009-10) and Central Regional (program started 2013-14) both qualified for the first time under head coaches Kyle Weise and Joe Pelliccio, respectively. 2008 finalist Jefferson qualified for the first time since 2010, while Dayton / Brearley, winless in four previous trips to the big dance since starting the program in 1998, qualified for the first time since 2007 and open on Sunday in the preliminary round.

Private

The 19-team private state tournament has a clear-cut favorite in Delbarton (19-4-1), which despite a Jan. 31 loss to CBA remains the most consistent program and the favorite to reclaim the title after its streak of six consecutive championships was broken in last year’s semifinals.

After that, however, it’s anybody’s guess. No. 2 Don Bosco Prep (11-8-4) is just 2-3-2 in its last seven games but held onto the No. 2 seed by virtue of its second-place finish in the Gordon Conference’s American Division and a 3-2 win over No. 3 CBA (19-5) on Feb. 8. The Colts are just 2-3 since that emotional win over Delbarton, losing to St. Augustine Prep in the regular season and falling to Bergen Catholic in the Gordon Cup semifinals.

No. 4 Bishop Eustace (12-6-1) and No. 5 St. Augustine Prep (9-7-4) traded one-goal decisions on Feb. 11 and Feb. 17, with Bishop Eustace winning the Gordon Conference’s National Division regular-season title and St. Augustine Prep winning the postseason Gordon Cup quarterfinal. The two are favored to meet again in the private quarterfinals, with the winner facing a likely semifinal against Delbarton.

Defending co-champion and No. 6 Morristown-Beard (15-6-4) could be hitting its stride at the right time once again, but the Crimson face an extremely tough Round-of-16 matchup against No. 11 Red Bank Catholic (17-5-3), which is 11-1-2 in its last 14 games heading into Monday’s Shore Conference Tournament final.

Bergen Catholic (12-10-1) is perhaps the biggest wildcard. The Crusaders did not win back-to-back games until Feb. 6-8 but have beaten rival Don Bosco Prep in their last two meetings (one regular-season, one in the Gordon Cup quarterfinals) and downed CBA in the Gordon Cup semis to reach Saturday’s final against Delbarton. Because their hot streak came after the Feb. 9 seeding deadline, Bergen Catholic was seeded No. 10, which means it will open against highly-regarded No. 7 St. Joseph (Metuchen) (17-2-3) in the Round of 16. Should the Crusaders win – no sure thing – a likely quarterfinal against Don Bosco Prep – it would be the teams’ fifth meeting of the season – looms as an early heavyweight showdown.

Jonathan Yardley
Jonathan Yardley has been covering high school ice hockey in New Jersey since 1996. A native of Morristown and a Delbarton alumnus, he graduated from Rice University in Houston, Texas in 2005. A radio and television broadcaster, he has called games for the 2003 NCAA championship Rice baseball team (2002-05), the 2011 Major League Soccer Eastern Conference champion Houston Dynamo (2008-11), and ESPN3 (2012-13), among other teams and outlets. He grew up watching hockey at Mennen Arena and for five seasons (1996-97 to 2000-01) wrote a weekly newsletter and ran the webpage for the MCSSIHL, the Morris County high school league. He now writes for Hockey Night in Boston in addition to website and blog maintenance.
Jonathan Yardley
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