In Essex County, Montclair Kimberley (15-4-3) starts the year as the clear favorite, despite last year’s upset loss in overtime in the McInnis Cup final. The Cougars return senior forward Rob Jaworski (24-25-49), who begins the year six points away from 100 for his career, and senior forward John Buckley (17-12-39), along with sophomore forward Devin Pepe (8-22-30). Older brother Brendan Pepe (7-16-23), a senior, leads the defense in front of strong junior goalie Ike Osbun (2.23 GAA). Freshmen James Buckley at forward and Zachary Schaller on defense could have an impact this year.
Livingston (19-6-4) went on a magical six-game postseason run last year that included overtime wins in the McInnis Cup semifinals and final and an upset of top-seeded Morris Knolls en route to the Public A semifinals. The Lancers suffered some losses but return senior Brian Lilien in goal and junior playmaker Tal Finberg, a second team all-public selection, up front. Senior Cole Friedfertig and sophomores Ryan Dallow and Phil Edelman key the defense.
Nutley (17-5-3) had one of its best seasons ever but was upset in the opening round of the state tournament by Woodbridge. The Raiders lost star goalie Alec Astorga, who transferred to Canterbury, and will try to re-group behind senior forwards Michael Frade and Mike Conca and senior defenseman Justin Souza.
Four years removed from a Public B championship, West Essex (7-10-6) could contend this year. Senior goalie Christian Aussenheimer backstops a strong defense that includes seniors Mike Ruggiero and C.J. Muehlbauer and junior Mike Nemeth. Offensively, senior Nick Paranzine has a great slot presence, supported by senior Aron Augustitus and a strong junior class. The rest of the division includes Montclair (12-13-2) and senior forward Ryan Vanderford, a Division I lacrosse commit; Millburn (13-12) and senior forward Phil Pikus (39-18-57), a one-man offense; Verona/Glen Ridge (3-18-2) and junior forward Dylan DeCandia, also capable of taking over a game; and West Orange (5-18-2), led by senior forward Jonathan Miller.
No. 10 Summit may be the county’s top dog, but Westfield (20-4-3) is actually the defending UCIHL champion after the two split their season series last year and Westfield won the county title game 3-1. The Blue Devils return one of the county’s top scorers in senior Dane Huber (31-10-41), a college lacrosse commit. Westfield also welcomes back junior goalie Dan DoCampo (1.82 GAA in his first year in goal). Senior defenseman Andrew Stern (8-10-18) provides the grit, and 6-foot-3 sophomore forward Matt Macik could have a breakout year. Elsewhere, Johnson (6-14-2) returns seniors Vincent Fischetti (22-17-39) and Joseph Lomeli (12-9-21), and the Crusaders welcome a standout freshman in defenseman Ty Schaffer, while Cranford (12-8-2) finished third last year but lost a lot to graduation. Scotch Plains-Fanwood (9-14-2), Governor Livingston (7-17), and Dayton/Brearley (7-16) round out the conference.
After falling in overtime to eventual champion Randolph in last year’s state tournament, Ridge (19-5-4) lost its top three scorers and both goalies heading into this season. The Red Devils are still strong on the blue line, with juniors Cole Sanderson (3-15-18) and Ben Raff (4-11-15) and sophomore Gary Prince, while junior Tim Knightly (14-7-21) and senior Dan Giberna (4-9-13) will be called on to lead the way offensively.
Montgomery (7-17-1) is expected to bounce back from a rare down season, returning leading scorer Cam Garinger (13-13-26), a junior, and starting goalie Robbie Michaelson, a senior. Other key contributors up front could be senior Chris Demarco, junior Minbae Lee, and sophomore Ryan Irving.
Hillsborough (14-9-2) lost 70 percent of its scoring but does return sophomore goalie Marty Paro, senior defenseman Ryan Oeckinghaus, and sophomore forward Dave Ely. Bernards/Somerville (12-11-3) could surprise some teams in its first season as a full Skyland Conference member, led by junior goalie Coleman Merchant, junior forward Vince Petruolo (20-17-37), and sophomore defenseman Curtis McGriskin (5-15-20). Hunterdon Central (15-9-2) graduated 12 players from its breakthrough season last year but returns junior goalie Carter Siani, senior defenseman Rob Bakerian, and senior Chris Dolan (4-12-16), expected to move up to forward alongside sophomore Josh Richards and junior Brian Brown. Watchung Hills (4-17-3) and a very young team at Pingry (9-11-1) are likely to struggle, despite the best efforts of impressive Pingry goalie Chris Brown.
GREATER MIDDLESEX CONFERENCE
After powerhouse St. Joseph Metuchen, the GMC is up for grabs. Old Bridge (15-7-2) appears to be the best of the rest, led by senior forwards Jared Layer and Peter Krzewinski and senior defenseman Denis Kilduf, plus a strong sophomore class. South Brunswick (10-8-1) and Monroe (7-12-2) will likely battle for third, because Woodbridge (18-8) is likely to come back to the pack after losing high-scoring Eddie Parfitt. The remaining four schools condensed into two programs via co-op, with Edison/J.P. Stevens (combined 9-26-1) and Colonia/JFK (combined 9-33-1) unlikely to finish in the top half.
COLONIAL VALLEY CONFERENCE
Ten years after the CVC realigned to three divisions back in 2003-04, the league returns to two divisions this year. Two-time defending Mercer County champion Notre Dame (21-4-2) is the odds-on favorite, and the Irish hope to impact the state-wide picture as well. Head coach Andrew Ducko welcomes back some impressive scoring talent, led by junior Connor Todaro (26-37-63) and supported by junior Dakota Skove (19-23-42) and senior Jess Manyoky (11-16-27). Talented freshman Matt Sellers could be a big addition on offense. Defensively, senior Erik Layton, junior Chris Sellers, and sophomore Stephen Patas lead the way in front of first-year starter Kyle Young in goal. Having reached the private quarterfinals just once in the last six years, Notre Dame will play six of the 10 Gordon Conference schools and No. 4 St. Joseph Metuchen during the regular season to prepare for the state tournament.
The top local challenger will be Robbinsville/Allentown (19-6-1), which reached the Public A quarterfinals and the Mercer County final last year, both the best finishes in program history. The Ravens should be a Public A contender again this year, led by the senior forward trio of Eric Hildebrand (31-21-52), Coleman Anker (11-11-22 in limited action), and Dan Cox (12-23-35). On defense, senior blueliner Keith Allen is the main source of experience, and four goalies are vying to replace the graduated Kellen Anker. Hopewell Valley (7-13-1), in its first year under former Toms River East coach Bob Gialanella, has a solid core returning in senior goalie Ryan Dajczak, senior forward Trevor Weidman (17-16-13), and sophomore forward Gilford Daley. Princeton (10-9-1), under new head coach Terence Miller, returns the junior trio of Connor McCormick (15-16-31), Jack Andres (19-11-3), and John Reid (7-9-16) up front, while senior Patrick McCormick locks down the blue line in front of senior goalie Robert Quinn. WWPN (12-9-2) returns only senior forward Charles Singerhouse (18-16-34) from last year’s big contributors.
In the Valley Division, Lawrence/Ewing (11-8-2), one of the first recent instances of two established programs merging, is the early favorite after making
its first state tournament appearance in five years last season, its third as a single program. The Cardinals are led by senior forward Cory Zrinko (34-26-60) and sophomore forward Brian Reznikov (12-18-30), with sophomore Travis Pelke in goal. WWPS (9-10-2), with juniors Jonathan Matthews (16-17-33) and Brian Tso (10-28-38), Steinert (5-13-1), Paul VI (2-12-2), Hightstown (10-13), and Nottingham/Hamilton (2-21) will all try to take advantage of the weaker schedule offered by the new alignment.
GORDON CONFERENCE NATIONAL DIVISION
Often caught between being very good but not elite, the teams of the Gordon Conference’s National Division appear to have stepped up their game for 2013-14. Leading the way is Pope John (9-8), which returns key senior goalie Justin Natiello, junior forwards Donny Flynn, Dylan Kuipers, and Angelo
Marquart, senior forwards Alex Kalemba and Billy Rafferty, and junior defenseman Tyler Lapshanski. St. Peter’s Prep (7-15-1) returns a trio of experienced forwards in senior Rocky Coviello, junior Sean Crowley, and sophomore Augie Burkhardt, while senior defenseman John Martucci leads the way in front of junior Jonathan Labella, who transferred in last year. At Seton Hall Prep (8-15-2), Tom Bishop takes over as the new head coach and has a talented junior class that includes forwards Matt Farrell and Zack Potten and defenseman Zak Sheikh. St. Augustine Prep (8-13-1) should benefit from moving down to the National Division and should be led by senior forwards Ryan Conlin and Dean DeSimone. Bishop Eustace (3-16) rounds out the state’s top conference.
Bayonne (3-16-3), which won the public championship in 2000 and returned to the championship game the following year, has struggled to remain competitive the last two years and will play an independent schedule in 2013-14. They will be joined by East Side (0-8), Hudson Catholic (6-16-1) if the Hawks can field enough players, and first-year program Central Regional, which is expected to join the Shore Conference in its next realignment prior to the 2014-15 season.