By Matthew Rocco
Inconsistency has plagued the Ocean Township High School ice hockey team over the first 14 games of the season. The Spartans must now find their rhythm — and fast — if they are going to book a ticket to the state tournament.
With help from a hard-working group of seniors and up-and-coming stars, the Spartans expect to get the job done.
Ocean Township split the first two games of the season, followed by back-to-back losses. The Spartans then tied Colonia High School and won three games in a row, moving above .500 on the season. But the team lost five of its next six games, capped by an 11-1 blowout Jan. 5 courtesy of Freehold Township High School.
“It’s been a prototypical up-and-down season,” said head coach Dave Smith, who noted that Ocean Township has several inexperienced players logging a lot of minutes on the ice. “We’ve been consistently inconsistent.”
Still, the recent loss to a talented Freehold Township squad provided a lesson in one of Ocean Township’s best assets: toughness.
The Patriots stuck with their top players even as the game got out of reach for the Spartans, who fought until the bitter end in hopes of avoiding a loss by way of the mercy rule.
“We came into the game under-staffed due to injuries and illness. I was proud of my guys. I haven’t been involved in many 10-goal games, but some teams quit. We played hard until the end,” Smith said.
The Spartans, who reached the Shore Conference Dowd Cup quarterfinals a year ago, hope to get their season back on track with nine games to go until the cutoff to qualify for the NJSIAA tournament.
Leading the charge is senior captain Ian Hendricksen, who has 13 goals and 17 total points to his credit as a defenseman. Hendricksen set the tone in Ocean Township’s first game of the season, getting back on the ice despite dealing with an injury from a rough hit.
“That’s been his M.O. since his freshman year,” Smith said. “He’s a great leader.”
Forward Joe La Valle, who is also a senior captain, leads the Spartans with 18 points, including nine goals. Sophomore Dylan Haar has made an early impression, scoring 12 times for 17 total points thus far.
Ocean Township, a co-op program with Shore Regional High School, is relatively young on defense. Aside from senior Michael Perri, the Spartans run with sophomore Brendan Convery and freshman Scott Sirianni on the defensive side. The Spartans also have freshmen Patrick Brannen and Richard Canneto providing depth. Junior Sean Harrington serves as the primary goalie after taking up the position this season.
Senior Alexei Laughlin centers the second line. Ocean Township has more veteran depth in senior forward Casey Schulhafer and junior forwards Gavin Cherella and Tommy Stuppi.
“The guys that are older players, our captains, seniors and juniors, set a good example. The one thing we’re hearing from other coaches in the handshake line is that we don’t quit,” Smith said. “We have a good group of kids who are very dedicated, very engaged and well-led by our upperclassmen. It’s a good group, but our lack of experience is definitely hurting us in terms of our record.”
The head coach believes his team will continue to improve as players gain more experience and develop a higher hockey IQ.
The Spartans have already proven to have strong puck movement and a solid forecheck. Their penalty kill has also been a positive.
Ocean Township has outscored opponents, 44-42, when discounting the Freehold Township game and a 10-2 loss to Robbinsville High School in the season opener. Yet somehow, the Spartans find themselves three wins from a .500 record.
Looking at the numbers, the Spartans see a path to the playoffs.
“I do think we’re going to pull it together. I know everyone wants to make the states,” Smith said.
Ocean Township (5-8-1) was slated to play Lacey Township High School on the road Jan. 9. The Spartans’ next game is Jan. 12 against Edison High School on their home ice, the Jersey Shore Arena in Wall.