The Cougars swept through the SJHSHL Tier-II playoffs despite returning only a few players from last year’s club.
On Feb. 22, Cherry Hill East ice hockey’s varsity team made history when it won the program’s third consecutive South Jersey High School Hockey League Tier-II championship, defeating Holy Lenape Valley, 2–1, in the final game.
However, this year’s team was nothing like the previous two championship-winning clubs.
Cherry Hill East won the 2019 title with a ton of first-year varsity players. After returning just five players from last year’s team, the Cougars went into the 2018–19 season with a young team and a ton of roster spots open for competition.
“A lot of the new kids had to learn our systems and everything,” senior captain Tom Papa said. They just had to get used to playing a higher level of hockey, because JV is a lot slower than varsity.”
Papa and fellow senior captains Sean McKenna and Ben Isakovich were three of the five returning players for Cherry Hill East. It was their job to be leaders and help the younger guys along, especially early in the year. Isakovich said the competitiveness of the younger players was a big boost.
“All of the guys are looking up to us, they want to keep up that winning mentality,” Isakovich said.
One of Cherry Hill East’s biggest losses entering the season was on offense. The team lost its three top scorers from 2018 and Papa noted this year’s team did not have the offensive firepower of last season. In 2018, Cherry Hill East had seven players tally 20 or more points. This year, only Papa had 20 or more points.
“We had a good amount of players who could go through teams and score goals pretty much at will,” Papa said of the 2018 team. “This year, we had to play a lot more as a team and focus on systems.”
While Cherry Hill East scored fewer goals this year, head coach Scott Busler believed this year’s team was the strongest on defense out of all three championship clubs.
“There’s one key concept we talk about all year long…which is always keeping your body between the puck and the net,” Busler said. “That forces everybody to get back.”
McKenna said the forwards were challenged to get back on defense and embraced playing a two-way game.
“We’re trying to block shots from their defensemen,” McKenna said. “We’re getting back and trying to play low (in the zone).”
Isakovich praised the forwards for their shot-blocking and commitment to playing tight defense.
“I think we’re more confident overall defensively,” Isakovich said of the team’s defensemen. “We don’t have to do as much. We don’t have to run around. We just stay in position and mark our guys in front of the net.”
Unlike last year, Cherry Hill East took some lumps over the course of the regular season. Against Tier-II’s top two teams, Holy Lenape Valley and Clearview, the Cougars went just 4–4–0 in the regular season. However, Papa said a hard-fought, 4–3 win over Holy Lenape Valley on Jan. 4 helped the team gain some confidence. Even though the team entered the playoffs as the №3 seed behind HLV and Clearview, Papa said the team had confidence.
“I always thought we were the best team in the league,” Papa said. “We came in third, but we were within one game of first place.”
The Cougars’ confidence led to their strongest postseason run yet. To win their 2017 and 2018 championships, Cherry Hill East had to come out of the losers bracket in the SJHSHL’s double-elimination tournament.
This year, there was no loss in the playoffs. Cherry Hill East went a perfect 4–0 to win the championship. After a first-round win over Riverfront, the Cougars’ defeated Holy Lenape Valley, 3–2, Clearview, 4–1, and Holy Lenape Valley again, 2–1, to sweep through the tournament.
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“It was really exciting,” Papa said. “I remember last year, people said we were going to win going into it. This year, we weren’t supposed to (win) and it was exciting the way we did it. We swept right through the playoffs and it showed how good of a team we were.”
With the championship, Cherry Hill East became the first Tier-II team to win three straight titles. In all of the SJHSHL’s varsity levels, only Cherokee, which won four straight Tier I championships from 2011 to 2014, has won more consecutive titles than Cherry Hill East.
“When I grow up, when I remember high school hockey, I’ll remember we won three times in a row,” McKenna said.
While the three senior captains will be leaving the Cherry Hill East program, they believe the team’s run of championships isn’t over. With a majority of the team coming back in 2019–20, expectations will be high for the Cougars to win another title.
“I think they have some good players that are staying,” Papa said. “I think they have some good leaders and I do expect them to get a four-peat next year.”