Following a 13-1 regular season this year in the South Jersey Hockey League Tier 1 division, Clearview entered the double-elimination playoffs as the top seed in the tournament.
It would be fair to say the program has experienced its fair share of success and disappointment in the prior two years, as the Pioneers entered this year with back-to-back seasons in which they made the championship game for their respective tier, but lost.
The frustration and disappointment in getting so close to the ultimate goal – but failing to do so – was mounting for some in the program.
“Honestly, at the beginning of this year, I was skeptical about playing,” said senior goalie Logan Graham. “I was almost kind of fed up with hockey, with travel league not going how I wanted it to and the last two years [at Clearview] ending with those championship losses.
“As a goalie, it takes a toll on you,’’ he added. “It makes it feel like it’s all your fault, even if it’s not.”
Graham — the team’s lone goalie — ultimately decided to play his senior year, posting a 2.25 goals against average throughout the regular season, a major component of Clearview’s success.
But such success doesn’t come without difficulty: Clearview lost the first round of the playoffs 7-6 to Shawnee, putting the team’s backs against the wall for the remainder of the postseason in the double-elimination bracket. But the loss ultimately brought out the best in Graham and his fellow teammates.
“That’s the most goals I’ve ever given up in a high-school hockey game (seven) … I felt it throughout my whole body how terrible it was to lose that game like that,” Graham said. “I made it a point after that to tell myself that I wasn’t going to let us lose another game and that we were going to win the whole thing …
“It was a huge encouragement honestly, fueled by disappointment.”
Following the loss, the Pioneers won five consecutive games — including back-to-back wins over Shawnee — to claim the program’s first SJHSHL Tier 1 championship since 2001.
The relief of winning the final game of the season, according to senior captain Mario Leone, was euphoric.
“It still feels surreal that we were able to pull through and win it for our school and our community,” he said. “It’s 21 years of almosts and heartbreakers, especially within the last two years, too. But we were able to put our heads together and click as a team when it mattered most.”
According to stats provided by head coach Michael Wolk, Leone scored a team-high 36 goals and 61 points during the regular season, while fellow senior Connor Reagan scored 25 goals and 27 assists — including a team-high 10 goals in the playoffs — on their way to being major offensive contributors for Clearview.
The senior leadership on the ice and in the locker room, Wolk said, was a major reason why his squad was able to stay poised during an intense playoff run.
“I think a lot of it was due to the fact that a lot of these guys had been there before and felt it with their hearts as those previous championships slipped away from us,” he added. “I’m a first-year head coach, so I was super nervous, but one of our captains reminded me that him and the older guys know what it feels like to be where they were at.
“They didn’t want to go out with another loss.”
Reagan agreed that the team’s recent playoff experience, albeit painful, ultimately proved beneficial in pulling off this year’s championship.
“I think it helped us the past few years with what we went through, because we knew what it took to win now,” he said. “We looked at our mistakes from last year and were able to correct some things with the core group of guys that we had.”