Shore Conference, NJ Hockey Teams Persevere Through Unprecedented COVID-19 Challenges
By Casey Krish - Shore Sports Network Contributor
The 2021 Shore Conference ice hockey season will be one that will go down as one of the most memorable to anyone involved in the sport. It won’t be remembered for the championships. It won’t be remembered for the packed rinks and the huge goals that put schools in the record books.
It will be remembered for the empty rinks; the frustrating last-second cancelations, and the fact that the “masked man” no longer refers to just the goaltender.
The season finally got underway on Dec. 14 when virtual practices and outdoor workouts were permitted. Indoor practices got underway on Jan. 3 and games started Jan. 15. Teams were given seven weeks to schedule games.
Student-athletes who have become accustomed to playing for the chance to end their seasons on the ice at the Prudential Center were not given that opportunity this year. Seniors who have spent their careers playing in front of their classmates and parents were subjected to playing inside a barren icebox, with the occasional media member or live stream camera operator sharing updates to those not able to enter.
Temperature checks and COVID-19 waiver forms have become a common scene at the door. The new version of a locker room has become nothing more than a few spread-out benches in the corner of the rink. Some teams are even asked to change in the parking lot at some venues.
“If you were to tell me that we would have a season in November, I would have said you were crazy,” said Middletown South head coach Andrew Rosenbloom. “Of course, we were excited to be told we were playing this year, and leading up until we actually got into games we were just thankful to get what we could get.”
Friday marked a unique challenge at Winding River Skating Center, as six teams were scheduled to take the ice for a triple-header.
Multiple games on the same ice surface is not anything new for the ice rinks, but having to deal with the circumstances of a pandemic has proven difficult.
Ocean Township skated past Toms River East/Toms River South, 7-3, in the first game. After the rink was cleared and the “locker rooms” were sanitized, the second wave trickled in.
In the second game, Middletown South (5-2-3) defeated Central Regional (7-2) by a score of 5-2 behind a balanced scoring effort and dominating zone control. The Eagles got a goal each from Michael Volpi, Luke Finn, Lucas Campos, Nate Block and Nick Piscopo. Michael Ferlanti assisted on two of the goals.
Jack Collings made 16 saves in net for the win.
In the nightcap, Rumson-Fair Haven skated past Southern Regional,5-0, to remain undefeated.
A healthy crowd of masked and socially-distanced fans took in the action, and besides the piles of hockey bags around the room, there was a sense of normalcy once the action on the ice commenced.
When the NJSIAA made the announcement in the fall that winter sports were going to be played – with a condensed schedule and other restrictions – there was a sigh of relief among the community.
“These kids were excited when we told them to start preparing. Once we got the dates we just knew they would all be ready to go. They’ve waited long enough to get back out there,” Rosenbloom said.
For Middletown South, Central provided a stiff challenge. The Eagles have already tested their mettle against the likes of RFH, Marlboro and St. John Vianney. They also battled to a pair of ties earlier in the week against Manasquan.
“Once we take the ice, it becomes all business,” Rosenbloom said. “Yeah, this year it’s great that we just get to play, but no one ever steps out there not wanting to keep getting better and come out with the win. We made sure that we still had a schedule that was going to give us a challenge. We want to test ourselves each time we go out there.”
Middletown South was tested right away when Trevor Coltenback scored an early goal to give Central Regional a 1-0 lead. Domenick Competello would score in the second period in the waning seconds of a five-minute power play to tie the game, 2-2.
Nick Bilinski did not provide Middletown with any favors either, stopping 34 shots while being peppered all night.
The Eagles weren’t only tested on the ice, but even hours before the puck dropped, when they were informed that Central’s contest against Toms River North had been canceled. Middletown South, who had its own game against Ridgewood scrapped, slotted in and made the 11th-hour trip down to Toms River.
“The great thing is that all the coaches are constantly emailing or texting each other. As soon as I said we couldn’t play Ridgewood, Central jumped at it and added us on the schedule today,” Rosenbloom said.
All the challenges you can see are apparent. Last-minute changes to the schedule, having to stay distanced while changing in a makeshift area and having your face covered at all times off the ice only provides half the battle.
“Oh, for sure the mental part of all this is the hardest part,” Rosenbloom said. “Every time the phone rings and it’s a school official or our athletic director you kind of hold your breath.”
With only two weeks remaining in the season, any teams that face a shutdown will now have their season officially end prematurely.
“We just have to make sure we do our part. We are a year into this pandemic and you just never know what is going to happen next,” Rosenbloom said. “We don’t want to think ‘This could have been our final game’. All we want to do is enjoy the moment right now.”
Middletown South vs. Central Regional Ice Hockey