Hopewell repeats as Cup champion

Ice hockey

By: Mike Molaro
   It’s been said that you really don’t know much about a team until its back is to the proverbial wall.
   The Hopewell Valley Central High School ice hockey team answered any questions about its mental toughness with last Saturday’s thrilling 5-4 triumph over Princeton at the Sovereign Bank Arena to earn its second consecutive Titans Cup championship.
   HoVal has advanced to the title game in each of the tournament’s three years. The Bulldogs defeated Princeton 4-0 earlier this season.
   The victory clinched a berth in the state tournament for the Bulldogs. With four games remaining before the Feb. 14 cutoff date, HoVal is guaranteed the necessary .500 record.
   Coming back from a 2-0 first-period deficit, the second-seeded Bulldogs (10-5-1 overall, 7-1-1 in the Colonial Valley Conference) rode four goals from junior forward Greg Amato — including three in the second period — to stave off any thoughts of an upset by the third-seeded Little Tigers.
   "This was a great game," HoVal coach Rob Siris said. "We took a bad penalty early in the game, and they got a nice goal. We probably thought Princeton was going to hand us the Cup. Five minutes into the game, we were down 2-0.
   "I told the guys between the first and second periods that we had to wake up. Princeton skated hard, and they really wanted it. I’ve seen them three times this year, and this was the hardest they’ve skated."
   Amato, who was switched from defense to forward this season, scored back-to-back goals to tie the score at 2-2 and again knotted the game at 3-3 with 2:12 remaining in the second period following a Princeton goal.
   The Little Tigers took a 4-3 lead just 52 seconds later, but Amato deflected in a shot by sophomore forward Alex Laughlin with 5:53 left in the third period. Senior forward Bryan Frank scored the game winner with 1:36 remaining on a wrist shot that he lifted past Little Tiger goalie Shane Leuck.
   "Greg (Amato) really stepped up in the second period," Siris said. "Usually we have a couple of guys who step up. It wasn’t until the third period that we played our style of hockey and started to click.
   "The guys may have been a little overconfident. Princeton came out hard. It took awhile for us to get going. We were fortunate to get the win."
   Laughlin contributed two assists for HoVal, freshman defenseman Brian DeAngelis added an assist, and junior goalie Bryan Driver made seven saves.
   Having the state tournament berth locked up, the Bulldogs — 4-0-1 in their last five games — are now looking to position themselves for a favorable seed.
   "Our next four games will help us for seedings," Siris said. "Every win from here on in puts us in a better position."
   Overcoming that early two-goal deficit could pay huge dividends for HoVal in the future, including what it hopes will be a deep run in the Central Jersey Group III bracket.
   "Even though we have a lot of young guys, this game shows that we have a lot of composure," Siris said. "Our younger guys may have been overwhelmed by the surroundings."
   HoVal’s Jan. 28 game against Hamilton in the Mercer County Tournament was postponed due to inclement weather and was rescheduled for 3 p.m. Feb. 9 at Mercer County Park. The time off may have been a detriment.
   "That cancelled game hurt us," Siris said. "We had three days off without skating and a week between games. That could’ve been part of the reason for us coming out slowly against Princeton.
   "Over the next three weeks, we play three games a week. That’s the way we like it. For the guys to stay sharp, they need live action."
   Sandwiched around the MCT game are yesterday’s clash against Steinert at Mercer County Park and the 3 p.m. Feb. 11 showdown against Notre Dame at Mercer County Park with first place in the CVC on the line.
   "Steinert is a big game for us," Siris said. "We can’t afford any mental lapses against a team like Steinert. The Notre Dame game is for first place right now, but we have to get past Steinert first."
   The Bulldogs showed a great deal of mental toughness by digging deep and getting past Princeton. In doing so, they silenced many of their critics. Now they have to keep that momentum going.