The Christian Brothers Academy ice hockey team will not have the opportunity to defend its NJSIAA Non-Public state championship this year due to COVID-19, and a talented St. John Vianney squad will be unable to see how far it can go in the states, or even the Dowd Cup tournament, for the same reason.
But the beauty of having good teams is that they feature good players who are just happy to compete as often as possible.
“Our ultimate goal is to motivate the kids, especially the seniors, to make the most of an unfortunate situation,” said SJV coach Mick Messemer, whose team is off to a 2-0-1 start. “We want to have them play the game they love and go out and give it their best each and every day, whether its practice or a game. We are lucky to be playing at all!”
CBA, which is ranked No. 1 in the state by NJ.com, won both the NJSIAA Non-Public state championship and Gordon Cup under Andy Gojdycz upon his return as head coach last year. It was the first time the Colts swept both titles since a three-peat from 1994-96, when Gojdycz played for the program.
Photo Gallery: CBA v St. Peters Prep Hockey
“I have people telling me, ‘Do you realize you’re undefeated when it comes to the Gordon Cup and the states,’” Gojdycz said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Oh thanks for putting that [pressure] on me. Wonderful.”
He will remain undefeated in states since there are none this year, but an attempt will be made to play the Gordon Cup, pending the pandemic.
“Obviously it is disheartening there isn’t a state final to compete for,” said Gojdycz, whose team is 4-0. “The guys are looking at the Gordon as their state final. That’s their goal this year. I like the energy they have brought so far.”
SJV, which was No. 17 in preseason state rankings, comes off an 11-8-2 season in which the Lancers fell to Seton Hall Prep in the first round of states and lost to Manasquan in the Dowd Cup finals.
It was the fourth straight winning season and fifth in six years since Messemer took over what had been a moribund program in 2014. Despite losing its top two scorers and a top defenseman from last year, the Lancers are still formidable thanks to a winning environment Messmer has developed.
“From day one, our goal was to put a culture in place to last as long as we are lucky to be on board as a coaching staff,” he said. “Working hard both on and off the ice, in the classroom and community, goes a long way in doing so. We feel we put our players in a position to be successful not just on the ice, but in the real world once high school ends. We've been fortunate that the guys we’ve had have bought in.”
For the first time in the Messemer era, St. John Vianney may not have a big-time goal scorer. But that could translate into a positive, as the Lancers have numerous guys who can tally goals. Seven different players scored in the first two games, with Ryan Kulaszewski, Alec Osher, SJ LeComte and Luc Barnett getting three each, and Rob Calice adding two. Six other players had assists, giving the Lancers 13 players with a point.
“We've taken a different approach than in years past,” Messemer said. “We have the most depth we've had as a program in my seven years, so we are able to play more lines and keep fresh legs. We try to score anyway we can, whether it be flashy or ugly. They all count the same on the scoreboard.”
Defensively, junior Alec Osher and senior Joe Puglisi lead the way, while sophomore Pat Haines “made a huge leap from freshman year,” and Dakota Vastola is considered one of the top freshman blueliners in the state.
“I feel like our defense is our strong point,” Messemer said. “Alec Osher has stepped up big time as far as development, and Joe Puglisi adds great leadership and smart play.”
Defense is also a strong point for CBA, which makes sense since it returns the New Jersey Player of the Year in junior goalie Jake Donohoe. Due to Donohoe’s heavy travel league schedule, Gojdycz played Joe Cartigiano in two of the first four games.
“The tandem of those two is great for the program,” the coach said.
The Colts outscored their first four opponents, 19-3 as Michael Schmelzer, Christian Chouha and Ray Cartigiano have three goals each; and Leighton Biesiadecki and William Thygeson have two apiece. Biesiadecki, who’s just a sophomore, leads in assists with five.
Schmelzer and Chouha are among 29 freshmen who came out for the program this year, and the only two to make varsity.
“Do we expect a lot out of them this year? Sure,” Gojdycz said. “The welcoming period is over. Once you crack our starting lineup, you’re expected to produce. They’re good kids, they come in with a good hockey resume and I think they want the challenge. We’re excited to see what they can do.”
The senior leadership is provided by captain Colin Grable, and assistant captains Robert Setteducati and Lucas Salas.
“That’s our nucleus,” Gojdycz said. “Grabes has been here through family as well. His father being a former coach here, his brother being with the program. He’s a legacy and all he wants is another championship. Hopefully the guys will feed off him. That’s the winning attitude he portrays and obviously it’s invigorating to be around.”
Junior Zach Wagnon also returns after leading CBA with 19 goals last year.
“The guys have started off well,” Gojdycz said. “Obviously there are some things we need to work on, but that’s the maturation as the season goes on. We have some new faces and some youth to your team. We had 70 kids at tryouts. It’s definitely great to get that talent to come to the academy. We like what we see right now.”
Gojdycz brought a wealth of coaching experience to CBA last year. After his success as a Colts player, he played college hockey for Rutgers, where he went on to serve as head coach for 14 years. He also had high school success at Hightstown, Hunterdon Central and Montgomery before guiding his alma mater to a 20-4-3 record and two championships upon his return last year.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Gojdycz said. “I’ve been coaching over 25 years, I’ve been all over the place at different levels. To come back to your alma mater and put all your expertise, if you will, in one bucket to help these kids win everything, you can’t describe it.
“Looking at it from a coaching perspective, I want to say that was one of my top two coaching seasons. To bring it all back in one year, and win states and the Gordon, and have a team that just fed off each other, especially at your alma mater, you can’t write a better script.”
With the talent that keeps coming to CBA, it sounds like the coach has more scripts to write.
“We want to have that solid foundation,” Gojdycz said. “It’s not just year by year for us. We’re planning 15 to 20 years from now.”