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NJ League updates: Teams head towards post-season tournaments

MORRIS COUNTY

Traditionally the state’s deepest league, Morris County and its Mennen Division might be considered slightly down in 2015-16. It boasts top-10 contenders in Morristown (16-2-1), Morristown-Beard (13-3-1), and Randolph (14-3-2), but they have not been beaten or challenged in league play as much as they have most years. Traditional powers Morris Knolls (5-8-4), Kinnelon (6-9-3), and Chatham (8-9-1) are all just trying to qualify either for the state tournament or for at-large eligibility (four games under .500 or better). While Morris Knolls did win the 2014 Public A state title as a sub-.500 at-large qualifier, none of those three look likely to duplicate its success this year.

In the Halvorsen Division, Madison (12-8-1) has continued its program renaissance by winning the division title in its first year ever playing at such a high level; the Dodgers had been stuck in Morris County’s lower divisions since the league adopted its tiered structure in 1985-86. Non-league contests against Kinnelon, Chatham, Ridge, Seton Hall Prep, and Morristown-Beard, all losses, should nevertheless prepare Madison for the Public B postseason. Charlie Cleaves (14-13-27), Aaron Willsea (14-5-19), Michael Gleason (9-16-25), and Will Scavone (5-15-20) lead the way in front of the strong goaltending of junior Kavi Sinha. Roxbury (10-8-2) split the season series with Madison but could not overcome a slow start, while rivals Mendham (8-7-5) and West Morris (6-8-3) are capable of pulling off a Halvorsen Cup upset. Montville (6-10-2) is fighting to become state-tournament-eligible, while Pequannock (2-16) has to be looking forward to dropping down a division next year.

One step down in the Haas Division, a frantic race is on in the final 1-2 games. Traditional power Park Regional (7-9-1) beat first-place Sparta (8-12-2) twice in January to pull into a first-place tie, with Newton/Lenape Valley (11-8-3), Jefferson (10-5-1), Mount Olive/Hopatcong (7-10-1), and Mountain Lakes/Boonton (6-11-2) all lurking within four points of the top spot.

Five of those six will reach the Haas Cup playoffs, along with the top three teams from the Charette Division. Vernon (13-4-1) and Par Hills / Parsippany (8-9-2) could very well share the regular-season title after splitting the season series, while Morris Hills (10-6-3) is one of the stories of the year. Led by the scoring of Brandon Kwestel (12-10-22) and the goaltending of Matt Makuch, the Scarlet Knights have qualified for their first state tournament in 10 years while winning more than twice as many games this season (10) as they had in the last three years combined (4-59-3). High Point/Wallkill Valley (3-12-2) and Gill St. Bernard’s (0-17) round out the league.

BIG NORTH

Sean Komjian

Sean Komjian
Lakeland Regional

With three top-10 teams of its own, Bergen County is not taking a backseat to any region of the state, and the Big North Conference – which also includes schools from Passaic County – has been very competitive as a result. While Ramsey (16-2-1) is once again the public-school flag bearer, the Rams are actually second in their division behind Passaic County champion Lakeland (17-1-1), which beat a shorthanded Ramsey team 5-2 in mid-December. A loss to Morristown and tie against Morris Knolls are the only blemishes for the Lancers, led by two of the state’s four leading scorers, Danny Mullin (30-28-58) and Shane Davison (23-30-53), and outstanding goaltender Sean Komjian. The all-important Lakeland-Ramsey rematch is set for Thursday, and the teams could very well meet in the Liberty Division’s postseason tournament as well. The rest of the division has been very unpredictable, but Indian Hills (9-4-7) and Mahwah (11-7-2) have emerged just ahead of Ramapo (7-7-6) and Wayne Hills (7-8-4), leaving Wayne Valley (9-9-3) and West Milford (4-12-2) in their wake.

Ryan Grieco

Ryan Grieco
St. Joseph Montvale

In the Freedom Division, St. Joseph Montvale (14-1) opted out of a full league schedule and has only played four games against division opponents. The Green Knights, led by Dominick Posta (22-5-27), Ryan Grieco (5-16-21), and Matt Cocciadiferro (8-3-11) are still expected to battle Glen Rock (13-2-3) for the postseason cup title; the Panthers have beaten St. Joseph in the cup final three years in a row. Northern Highlands (8-7) leads Paramus/Lyndhurst/Hackensack (10-6-1) and Pascack Valley/Hills (6-11-2) in a tight race for the No. 3 seed, with Tenafly / Cresskill (7-9-3) striving for unlikely state-tournament eligibility and Northern Valley/Hasbrouck Heights (2-14-4) getting more competitive. Paramus is 7-2-1 since transfer Nick Carnevale (18-6-24) became eligible in January, with Evan Kelly (19-25-44) the top scorer.

In the Patriot Division, Ridgewood (11-5-1) split regular-season games with private school Paramus Catholic (13-4-1), and the teams will be favored to meet for a fourth consecutive year in the cup final, won in four of the last five years by Ridgewood. River Dell/Westwood (11-5-2) has made a strong charge, however, splitting games with Ridgewood, while Clifton (5-9-2), Passaic Valley/Cedar Grove (5-14), and Fair Lawn (4-14) round out the division.

Mid-Atlantic-Festival-Ad-300x250COLONIAL VALLEY CONFERENCE

It has pretty much been business as usual in the CVC this year, with Notre Dame (12-5-2) rolling over conference opposition while seeing mixed success in non-league play. The Irish boast the state’s second- and third-leading scorers in J.P. Brady (19-36-55) and Matt Sellers (27-27-54) but went 0-1-1 against St. Joseph Metuchen in non-league play and lost 3-2 to Princeton Day on Jan. 21, casting doubt on their ability to challenge two-time defending champion Hun for the Mercer County Tournament title. Behind Notre Dame, Robbinsville/Allentown (10-7-1) and Shawn Camisa (19-23-42) and Hopewell Valley (11-4-2) and Gil Daley (18-24-42) have waged their typically tight battle for second fiddle, just ahead of Princeton (9-6-3) and Brendan McCormick (24-15-39).

The Valley Division has seen Paul VI / Camden Catholic (7-3) take a one-game lead over Lawrence / Hightstown (6-6-1) with four games remaining. Steinert (3-10), WWPN / Ewing (6-14), WWPS (2-20), and Nottingham / Hamilton (1-11) are all fielding weakened teams this year.

NJIHL / INDEPENDENT

Having added several teams from Union County and several former independents, the NJIHL split back into two divisions this year and has been rewarded with some competitive races. The story of the year, though, is Montclair (15-0-2), still unbeaten through January. While the Mounties did not play an overwhelming non-league schedule, Senior Remy Parker (28-15-43) is an outstanding two-way forward, and junior Ondrej Smalec is a difference-maker in goal. Montclair proved its credentials by adding Middletown North to its schedule and then playing the Lions to a 4-4 tie on Jan. 15. Mike Gerne (13-15-28) and Brock Bowers (6-21-27) are among the other key pieces for head coach Pat Verney’s team. Smalec made 42 saves in a 3-2 win over rival Montclair Kimberley (10-6-2) on Jan. 27, alllowing Montclair to sweep the season series, and they clinched the division title over the weekend. For MKA, Devin Pepe (20-25-45) is wrapping up an outstanding career. Livingston (11-7-1) has also been a difficult opponent, tying Montclair last week, while Verona/Glen Ridge (11-7-1), Nutley (8-6-2), and even Millburn (8-7-3) look headed for the state tournament.

In the lower Liberty Division, West Essex/Caldwell (7-7-2) is making the first year of their co-op agreement a winning one, going 6-0 in division play. Scotch Plains-Fanwood (7-7) is coming on fast, however, just one game behind. Oratory Prep (6-14-1) has enjoyed the more competitive slate of division games, while East Side (3-8-2) has been competitive while playing its first league season since 2005-06. West Orange (3-12-2) and Dayton / Brearley (1-8-2) round out the field.

In the independent ranks, first-year program Frisch (6-2-2), a Paramus-based Yeshiva school, had a great first year and should be headed for the state tournament in its debut season. History-laden program Bayonne (1-13-1) is facing a year of difficult transition.

SKYLAND/GMC/UCIHL

In the middle of the state, three county-based conferences have seen close races for regular-season division titles. The large-school Skyland Conference sees Ridge (14-2-4) at the top once again; the Red Devils are unbeaten against public schools, including a tie against Glen Rock, but have looked vulnerable defensively against top-level forwards. Vanny Charleson (20-15-35), Marc DelGaizo (14-10-24), Gary Prince (10-12-22), and Alex Konovalov (12-3-15) lead the way. Second place is a closer battle, with Bridgewater-Raritan (11-4-3) trying to hold off Hunterdon Central (7-5-5), which beat the Panthers 6-3 on Saturday. Hunterdon’s Red Devils (unlike Ridge, they actually wear red), trail Bridgewater by two points but have one extra division game remaining. Watchung Hils (7-4-4) is enjoying its best season in years, while Pingry (3-6-7) has remarkably gone 2-1-4 in its last seven games, losing only to Morris County power Randolph by one goal, due largely to the outstanding play of goalie Chris Browne. Montgomery (6-6-4) is trying to find consistency in time for the postseason, while Hillsborough (6-12-1) and Bernards/Somerville (4-16-1) will be hard-pressed to make a playoff impact.

In Union County, only five schools are left in a dedicated conference after several defected to the NJIHL, although they still see each other often in non-league play. Summit (8-11-1) has won five of the six league titles and is tied for first place, but with such a difficult non-league schedule, the Hilltoppers will have to apply for an at-large bid to the NJSIAA tournament if they are under .500 through games of Feb. 8. Cranford (7-5-1) beat Summit in December and can take the regular-season title with a head-to-head win on Friday. Westfield (7-8), which broke Summit’s string with a cup title in 2013, remains a threat but will finish third. Governor Livingston (10-9) may need a win over Frisch on Feb. 7, the day before the state cutoff, to reach the state tournament for the first time since 2010. Johnson (6-9-1) also has a good chance to qualify, but the Crusaders have no margin for error down the stretch.

Hunter Spearnock Woodbridge

Hunter Spearnock
Woodbridge

In the Greater Middlesex Conference, everybody is chasing St. Joseph Metuchen (10-2-3), as usual. The Falcons’ losses came to Don Bosco Prep and Ridge, while they won the Egan Cup of mid-level private schools with a Jan. 15 win over Notre Dame. St. Joseph already has what may be a decisive head-to-head win over second-place Woodbridge (13-2-2); oddly enough, it came by a 10-goal margin way back on Dec. 2. After that loss, the Barrons went on a 14-game unbeaten streak, led by Kyle Mortensen (33-19-52) and Hunter Spearnock (15-29-44), although beating Princeton was probably their most impressive result. Old Bridge (8-8-1), led by Tyler Kogut (23-17-40) has the head-to-head edge for third place ahead of surging Monroe (6-5-5); the teams played to a 4-4 non-league tie on Jan. 22. South Brunswick (5-9-1), led by Tyler Allen (26-20-46), Colonia/JFK (3-13-1), and Edison/J.P. Stevens (2-12) round out the league.

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