Ice hockey champions of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, cluster around their prized trophy Feb. 18 after winning the Mercer County Tournament championship game in Mercer County Skating Center, West Windsor. Photo courtesy of Notre Dame HS Facebook page
Ice hockey champions of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, cluster around their prized trophy Feb. 18 after winning the Mercer County Tournament championship game in Mercer County Skating Center, West Windsor. Photo courtesy of Notre Dame HS Facebook page
" We played three very tough games and the players left it all out there. The support from our school was amazing ... " Mike McVey Coach, NDHS ice hockey

When Notre Dame High School of Lawrenceville defeated Robbinsville-Allentown in the Mercer County Tournament ice hockey semifinals, it would not have meant much had it not completed the mission by beating Princeton in the title game.

For only then would the severe sting subside from losing last year’s Colonial Valley Conference Tournament final on a goal at the buzzer.

Mission accomplished.

“This is huge,” Coach Mike McVey said after the third-seeded Irish claimed a 7-2 victory over the top-seeded Little Tigers in the MCT championship game Feb. 18. “After last year, these guys sat there, and we watched Robbinsville celebrate. We were that close, so it meant a lot.”

Both victories came in front of packed houses at the Mercer County Skating Center in West Windsor.

During last year’s COVID-19 modified set-up, a CVC Tournament was played, rather than a county tournament; and Robbinsville scored with one second left on the clock to beat ND in the championship game.

The Irish gained a modicum of revenge in the Feb. 16 MCT semifinals when freshman Gavin Frith scored three goals while Michael McVey (the coach’s son) and Will Celli each had a goal in a 5-3 win over second-seeded Robbinsville-Allentown.  

But if they didn’t beat Princeton, they would have to watch another team celebrate. And sophomore Cole Werthman was not about to let that happen.

The Little Tigers (16-5-3 record) came out blazing and peppered the net with shots, but Werthman turned back every one before the Irish (13-7-1)  could gain some footing.

McVey scored two goals toward the end of the first period and Celli added one in the beginning of the second to make it 3-0. Princeton would not go easy, however, and got within 3-2 on a short-handed goal early in the third period.

Celli gave ND some insurance with a goal, but with 7 minutes, 14 seconds remaining, the Tigers were the beneficiary of a two-man advantage power play. Rather than Princeton getting back in the game, however, Frith grabbed a loose puck and scored a short-handed goal to make it 5-2 and put ND in command.

“Gavin’s got another gear,” McVey said. “He doesn’t always use it, but when he does it’s hard to stop. Gavin was a huge addition for us this season.  He stepped right in and played a ton of minutes. Sometimes I had to remind myself that he was only a freshman.”

Frith just wanted to see his older teammates keep playing for as long as possible.

“I’m trying to give these seniors some more life,” he said. “It’s their last year, they put a lot on me, I gotta come up big and I did. It feels great.”

Werthman finished with 42 saves after making 35 in the win over Robbinsville-Allentown. He was the easy choice for Most Valuable Player, while the line of McVey-Celli-Frith combined for six goals and four assists in the championship game and five goals and two assists in the semifinals. Sophomore Trey Guire was also in that mix at times.

“We leaned on those four forwards very heavily this season,” coach McVey said. “Depending who we played we often had to balance the lines a little more. When we were able to get three of those guys together they were able to put up some impressive numbers.”

And while many of the headlines went to the goal scorers and Cole Werthman, a stout defensive corps also did its job, including Cole’s brother.

“Our defense was led by Drew Werthman,” McVey said. “Drew is such a well-rounded player. Offensively gifted, he was the anchor on our power play and a great leader.”

The coach also praised the work of senior Jamie Gaffney and junior Ty Watson, “who also played key roles on D.”

“But the one I’m most proud of is senior Teagan Brush,” McVey added. “The courage and determination she showed every game was fun to watch. She played just about every situation and was a huge part of our success this season.”

Brush’s dedication to the team was never more obvious than in the finals. She had a club game in St. Louis the next morning. Rather than drive out on Friday, she played in the game that night, then she and her parents immediately got in the car and drove to Missouri.

It was that kind of team spirit that gave Notre Dame its first county title since 2013.

“Winning the MCT was definitely our only goal coming into the season,” McVey said. “We knew it would be a big challenge because of how strong the other teams were but as the season went on, we started to realize it was anyone’s to win. I think Princeton was the favorite all season but Robbinsville, Hopewell, Paul VI, and the addition of the Lawrenceville JV team made it a real challenge.”

Not to mention, the Irish carried a three-game losing streak into the tournament. But their coach was not concerned.

“I didn’t feel that was a skid,” McVey said. “We played three good teams and we got better. If we blew some games there, I would have been upset, but I knew after playing (St. John) Vianney tough and losing an open net game against Robbinsville we were where we needed to be.”

Notre Dame’s season came to an end on Feb. 22, however, when the Frisch School of Paramus took a 5-2 win in the NJSIAA Non-Public Tournament play-in round. McVey felt it was a combination of Frisch’s talent and a slight Notre Dame letdown.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Frisch,” the coach said. “They outplayed us and deserved to win that game. I definitely think we weren’t able to match our energy from last week. We played three very tough games and the players left it all out there. The support from our school was amazing at the counties. The atmosphere in general was great for CVC hockey.”