Tough Tournament Roads on Horizon for Southern Regional Ice Hockey Squad
For many winter sports, February is tournament month. And with the arrival of both the Shore Conference and state tourneys during the coming weeks, the Southern Regional ice hockey team definitely will have its hands full.
But the question really is not whether the Rams are ready for what’s coming as much as it is whether they can rise to the same level as the past two seasons, when they reached the NJSIAA Public A semifinals in 2015 and last year snagged the Shore Conference Tournament Dowd Cup.
“We have high expectations,” said head coach Matt Hayes, following the Rams’ 10-0 drubbing of Toms River East on Jan. 26. “Nothing’s really different here this season. We have a different team than what we’ve had the past two years, mainly because last year we graduated our top three scorers in program history. But otherwise, it’s business as usual for us.
“However, we know there are a lot of good teams in our conference, and getting to a Shore Conference title game is going to be a difficult route for us. There’s a lot more depth in the Shore Conference this year, even deeper then Public A for us. We have the ability, but we have to play an entire 45 minutes each game.”
Heading into its Jan. 31 contest against Toms River South, Southern was 12-5-1 but coming off its fifth loss of the season on Jan. 27 – a 3-2 decision against Freehold Township. The game was tied after the first period, but the Colonials scored twice in the second period and held on for the win.
Hunter Bello was assisted by Nick Englebert and Tyler Golomb with 5:43 left in the first to knot the contest, 1-1, but Freehold scored the next two goals before Jack Conrad scored the Rams’ second goal with 1:29 left in the second period, off assists from Paul Keyes and Trent Markley. The Rams fired 34 shots on goal but couldn’t get one by Freehold Township goaltender Michael Ottone in the third.
The loss accentuated Southern’s struggles against Monmouth County foes this season. With no more regular-season games on the slate against Monmouth County teams, the Rams will take a 2-3-1 record against them into the Shore Conference Tournament. Contrasting that with the Rams’ record against Ocean County squads – 9-1 with two games against county rivals left to the regular season – it seems Southern is going to have to get over a hump at some point.
But what’s more interesting is the scoring disparity between the Rams’ victories and their losses. When the Rams have scored four or more goals in a game, they are 11-1, but just 1-5 when allowing three or more goals. And other than two victories against St. Rose, during which Southern scored more than three both times, the Rams scored two goals or fewer during their other four games against Monmouth teams – Middletown North (1-1), Red Bank Catholic (3-1 loss), Middletown South (3-2 loss) and Freehold Township.
“So far, we’ve been good at putting losses behind us,” said Jack Conrad, the senior center of the Rams’ top line. “It’s important that we don’t carry losses with us into the next game or two. You just can’t let losses affect you too much. And what’s more important is that we come back stronger the next time we get on the ice.”
Fortunately, the Rams have had enough tight games against good teams to reap the benefits of those experiences, particularly for when tournament time arrives. Unfortunately, Southern probably got very little out of beating up the Raiders on Jan. 26, as the Rams scored five goals in each of the first two periods to end the game 15 minutes early. Toms River East played the game with just eight skaters and a pair of goalies.
“We got this one, and it’s a step closer to where we’re going,” said goaltender Cam Conrad. “But, basically, we want to focus on each opponent and grow in each game as much as we can. We know there are bigger games ahead, and the main thing is we go into each one physically and mentally prepared to play.”
The Rams took a solid five minutes to really get going against the Raiders, but once Joe Harper scored off assists from Keyes and Jack Conrad with 9:35 left in the first period, the floodgate opened up. During a three-minute stretch between Bello’s goal with 5:56 left in the first and Matt Flynn’s rebound goal with 2:53 left, Jack Conrad and Bryan Janiszewski stuck the puck in the net to give the Rams a 5-0 lead.
Southern wasted little time in the next period, as Markley scored back-to-back goals at 1:04 and 3:25 of the second, before Flynn scored his second of the contest, assisted by Joe Cajzer, with 8:45 left in the period to make it 8-0. Markley completed a hat trick when he blasted a one-time from the slot off an assist from Shaun High, and David Lytle scored his team-leading 17th goal of the season, short-handed with 1:44 to go. Cam Conrad and Anthony Scalvino combined for nine saves.
“My line has a lot of chemistry, but we have pretty good second, third and fourth lines as well,” Jack Conrad said. “And that’s what’s good about us. We can roll three or four lines, and everybody matters in some way. We lost some big scorers after last season, but a lot of guys have really stepped up for us this season. I feel like we, as a team, have as good a skill level as any team we’ve had before, and I’m confident we can rise to the occasion when tournament time rolls around.
“We just have to maintain a good mindset, go into each game confident and trust each other. We just have to work harder than the guys on the opposite side.”