High-school ice hockey teams in New Jersey this season will endure plenty of challenges due to COVID, with arguably the most frustrating being the sudden postponement and cancellation of games.
Gloucester Catholic, No. 3 in the state according to NJ.com’s most recent rankings, has been no exception only two games into the season.
“Of our first four scheduled games, three have already been rescheduled,” said coach Tom Bunting. “It’s crazy; it’s going to be really hard to get the full slate of games in, but we’ll do the best that we can.”
Fortunately for ice hockey in general, Bunting said, most players play on club teams throughout the year as well, meaning while practices or games may be cancelled for a team, they can stay on the ice and keep working.
Per NJSIAA rules, teams can play a maximum of 15 games this season, including any Cup or Conference Championship play. For teams in the Gordon Conference such as Gloucester Catholic, the goal is to play a 12-game regular season before starting the playoffs for the Gordon Cup.
Regardless of the mayhem a pandemic may bring, the goal remains the same for Gloucester Catholic: Win the final game of the season and secure a first Gordon Cup.
As usual, how a team fares relies greatly on the play of its goalie: Junior Zach McErlain is up to the challenge.
“It’s different this year; everyone is relying on me now and I know that,” McErlain said.
Last year, he was the backup behind then-senior Chris Liscio and got the chance to play in only a handful of games. Looking back, McErlain said he tried to learn from Liscio as best he could while the latter guarded the Rams’ goal.
“I learned a lot from him. He taught me how to be a leader and how to lean on my teammates,” McErlain noted. “I was a little bit shy before that, but he kind of set a precedent almost about how to be a leader and be more involved, on and off the ice.”
McErlain got into ice hockey relatively late compared with most players, first getting on the ice at around 11 years old. Before that, he played street hockey.
“Most of these kids start at around 6 or 7 years old, so arguably he was about four years behind some guys,” Bunting explained. “He’s probably, of all the guys on the team, had the most significant jump in terms of improvement from freshman year to junior year.”
“When he came in I wasn’t sure he’d ever be a varsity goalie, but he had a nice freshman year with junior varsity and last year,” Bunting added. “I thought he played fantastic when he got the chance to while behind (Liscio).”
McErlain admits it was a difficult transition to ice hockey at first, due to some slight differences in play style between the pipes, but he rose through the ranks to get to where he is now.
“I started from the bottom and had to work my way, up and I had to make up for a lot of time compared to some other kids,” McErlain noted. “It’s a completely different game in street hockey. For example, you can’t slide (to make saves), but I had a good foundation in net set up from that that helped me be able to be successful when I did finally get on the ice.”
Bunting believes the best is yet to come for McErlain.
“I don’t think we’ve seen what his ceiling is yet to be honest,” the coach said.
While McErlain certainly seems to be a bright spot for the Rams moving forward, Gloucester Catholic also has a substantial amount of talented younger guys on the roster who have Bunting excited about what his team can do.
“I have a really good sophomore class as well,” he said. “All the sophomores that are dressing right now played a fairly significant role last year, so they already have a good amount of experience with 20 games of varsity hockey from last year.”
Last year, the Rams went 11-7-4 during the season, making it to the semifinal round before losing to Don Bosco Prep 3-1. Although the NJSIAA tournament won’t be played this year, the team also made it to the semifinal round, before losing to the Christian Brothers Academy 2-0.
But in what was a step in the right direction: Players such as Billy Sheridan, Ryan Bunting and Casey Johnson all saw a large amount of playing time as freshmen, and are now setting up an experienced sophomore line that Bunting is excited to see grow.
“While they’re young guys, they’re all pretty high level players and more than capable of playing at this level moving forward,” he said.
In a conference with teams such as Christian Brothers Academy, Seton Hall Prep and Don Bosco Prep — who have had tremendous success over the years in both the Gordon Conference and the state tournament — Bunting believes his team is more than ready to take on the challenge.
“My guys can easily walk into any rink and feel like we can beat any team,” he added. “We feel like we’re deep enough and talented enough to beat any team in the state, and we have just as much a chance to win the Gordon as anyone.”