PDS hockey streaks into Prep B final

Panthers don’t need comeback in recent wins

By: Justin Feil
   Comebacks have been the calling card for the Princeton Day School boys’ ice hockey team.
   Big finishes in the last month have seen them overcome a 4-0 deficit to Morris Knolls, two deficits against Hill before winning 4-3, and pull out a 3-2 win over St. Augustine and rallied from a 3-0 deficit for a 4-3 win over Portledge.
   "We’ve had a lot of close one-goal games," said PDS head coach Chris Barcless, whose team is 13-6-1. "We’ve been fortunate to be on the right side of those games."
   It’s been stressful, but Barcless has no answer for the slow starts or the fast finishes. He can only think of one explanation for the success.
   "Just the winning tradition that our team and our program has," he said. "We find ways to win. We’ve been fortunate to get some lucky bounces. I really can’t explain it. Our record could easily be flipped."
   The Panthers hope convincing wins in their last three games mean they won’t need any big comeback when they host top-seeded Morristown-Beard for the Prep B state championship on Wednesday. Having won so many games in comeback fashion, the Panthers won’t panic if they do fall behind, but they’d prefer their more recent way to win.
   "No one wants to make it a tradition," said PDS junior Derek Mayer of the comebacks. "I think knowing you’ve come back makes it easier to get back on the horse after you know it’s been done before."
   Mayer scored twice in the Panthers’ 5-2 win over Malvern Prep on Wednesday for their sixth straight win and ninth in their last 10 games. Monday, Mayer had an assist and Eric Czapka and Justin Mimmo had two goals apiece in a 5-2 win over Montclair-Kimberley in the Prep B semifinals.
   "He’s been doing a good job for us," Barcless said. "He’s been playing well. Derek, he’s been a warrior. That’s the term I would use for him. He’s been banged up this year. He’s played hurt. He’s played hard. He’s a major part of a lot of our success."
   Mayer is hoping the success continues Monday against a Mo-Beard team that overwhelmed Hun, 7-2, in Monday’s other Prep B semifinal. The Raiders had goals from Andrew Ashenfelter and Rob Hackett, and cut the deficit from their first meeting with Mo-Beard, but couldn’t deny the defending state champions. Now, it’s PDS’ turn to try.
   Last season, it was Mo-Beard that ended the Panthers’ seven-year run of state titles. The Panthers are hungry to get it back.
   "Losing the state final, regardless of how many fans there were, knowing the tradition we have and having alumni come back, it was rough," Mayer said. "There is a lot more focus on this game. We’re not relying on our skill level or our tradition. We want this one."
   Barcless added, "We had four graduating classes that won prep titles their entire career. Last year, our senior class won three out of four, but didn’t get a fourth. They were a little disappointed. This year, the senior class would like to get three out of four and the freshman would like to start a streak. This year it’s going to be very difficult."
   Mayer is part of a junior class that has established itself as leaders on the team. He knew that someone would have to fill the void left by Will Denise’s graduation.
   "We have a bunch of strong juniors who have helped out this year," Mayer said. "It was hurtful to see Will go, and we have a few seniors. But we have a junior on defense and two juniors and a sophomore on the first line that have stepped up. It’s not so much pressure on me, but on our class. We kind of made it our job to help out the team any way possible and help out the team and fill in the gaps.
   "Without the leadership of last year, we were asking people to step up when they’re not ready to. Now people are stepping up. We have freshmen stepping up and playing second line. We’re coming together."
   They’ll be facing a veteran team that Barcless had a chance to see in action in a tie with Delbarton on Tuesday. He came away impressed and knows the Panthers can’t wait until the third period against the No. 1 seed.
   "If we fall behind at Mo-Beard, I think it would be very difficult to come back," Barcless said. "We have to be prepared. We have to be ready to play hockey for 45 minutes.
   "We’re the second seed. They’re the No. 1. Clearly, they’re the favorite. We make a living on beating teams that should beat us. We would have a losing record if we lost to teams we were supposed to."
   Mayer thinks the magnitude of the game will help the Panthers come out as quickly as they have in recent wins. PDS has started to perhaps turn the corner and not rely on its final period push.
   "Preparation before the game and certainly the fact it’s a state final game are going to help us out," said Mayer, a Hopewell resident. "Especially after last year, we want the taste of victory. We’re all going to get up. I don’t think this is going to be a repeat of any previous game. It’s more of a rivalry (than revenge). We want our title back."
   And whether the Panthers win it back with a monster first period or whether they have to gray Barcless’s hair more with a third-period rally, they’ll take a championship any way they can. PDS has shown it can win either way this season.
   "The main thing is the confidence we have," Mayer said. "Not so much that we’re always going to win, but that we’re going to keep going. Everyone relies on each other to make sure we keep it going.
   "It’s like we get in the locker room after the second period and no one talks. We just know what to do."
   The Panthers don’t know much more than winning, and they’ve won a variety of ways. After wins in the convention style and some thrilling comebacks, they’re ready to take on Morristonw-Beard for what would be a big win and another Prep B title Wednesday.
   "I like to think we’re confident," Mayer said. "When we started at the beginning of the year, it was shaky. We had a losing streak that no one really talked about. Once we found out what we could do, the whole team was more confident. Once the younger players started to help out, it really became a team again."