Lions Roar Along in the Postseason

MIDDLETOWN – On the surface, Middletown North’s collective record might not look overly flattering. At 7-11-3, the casual follower of New Jersey hockey would conclude that the Lions are an under-average group that can win some nights, but won’t be much of a threat in the postseason.

To those dedicated to the sport and are rigorous followers, they know that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Playing in the Shore Conference’s A North division, the most lethal group of clubs from top to bottom, it is clear that any team can be tripped up on a nightly basis.

“Yeah, the record isn’t the most attractive in the conference, but we play some tremendous talent,” Middletown North head coach Don Wood said. “Our state tournament bid is in the committee’s hands at this point. Let’s see what they think.”

The Lions entered the cutoff day for the state tournament within the four games over .500 (7-11-2) needed to place a bid to enter the state tournament. With the likes of CBA, Saint John Vianney and Manasquan – all regular guests in the top 20 – in A North, Middletown North knew the season would be a grind from the beginning.

“We knew the schedule was going to be challenging, and we weren’t going to shy away from playing anyone,” Wood added.

Two dates with Middletown South, as well as games against St. Rose and Rumson-Fair Haven also highlight the opposing talent on the Lions schedule.

Middletown North has hung tough with some of the best the Shore Conference has to offer, but they also battled the defending Public B Champions in Ridge and a 17-win Lakeland team that won the Passaic County Tournament crown in the past week.

What makes the Lions a dangerous team to play is their ability to have a different player step up each night. With John Miranda (17 points) and Jesse Dickinson (14 points) being the only scorers in double digits, the numbers might not jump off the page, but what does get noticed is the timely efforts of contributions up and down the lineup.

“We don’t have a high-octane offense by any means, but what we do have is a lot of kids who have five, six, seven points across all our lines,” Wood said. “Opponents don’t have that opportunity to focus on and take away one player, because if you do that someone else can hurt you.”

Frank Wendling, Larry Gearl,  John Betz, Zach Brady, Colin Delanzo, Andrew Gross and Jimmy Mullarney have all produced in timely manners this season. Each has scored between two and five times this season, and everyone, with the exception of Wendling and Gearl, will return to the lineup next season.

“We love to spread the wealth around, because we are not a one-man show,” Miranda said. “Everyone on this team deserves their time to shine.”

Where Middletown North has truly made its living is on the blue line. Defensively, the Lions have allowed just over 2.5 goals per game. That number against the offensive talent they’ve come across this season speaks volumes about this defensive core. Middletown North has allowed more than three goals only five times, and in only one instance allowed more than four.

“We have some defensemen who can really lock it down,” Wood said. “Even when they aren’t having their best games the other team has to grind out their goals.”

T.J. Stone (seven points) and Jared Kern (two points) are the elder statesmen on the back end that lead a young core that is more than capable of chipping in offense when needed.

“The defense has played really well all year long and have kept us in a lot of games this year,” Miranda said. “We always have a chance to win the game with that group and a great goalie back there.”

Junior Bob Fitzgerald has nine goals, which ranks second behind Miranda for the most on the team. Aidan Cook, Tom Macrae, Connor North and Anthony Rocca make up the rest of the back end.

“They keep us in every game, and even when the other team is finding those holes, we have Matt (Corella) as our last line,” Wood said.

Matt Corella has taken the reigns as a third-year starter and has produced a stellar .916 save percentage. He celebrated his 1000th career save earlier this season.

“You really can do anything if you work hard at it,” Corella said. “It’s a great number to get, but I honestly don’t want to sit on personal milestones and let them define my time here.

“I’ve had some great players in front of me that can force them to take shots I can get to easier. A lot of credit has to go to them,” he continued.

Middletown North earned the seven-seed in the Dowd Cup and defeated 10th-seeded Wall Township, 3-2, in an overtime thriller; a game that played to the blueprint Middletown North has established throughout the season.

Another close, low-scoring, grind of a win has permitted the Lions to get a crack at a familiar opponent in the Dowd Cup semifinals on Feb. 18. Middletown North fell to Saint John Vianney on Dec. 17, 3-2, in a game that saw the Lions rally from a 3-0 hole established in the second period.

While the Lions await a possible invitation into the NJSIAA Public C state tournament, their focus will solely be on getting that second crack at the Lancers.

“We played everyone in our division tough this year, and if a bounce goes our way here or there then we might be able to knock off a team like SJV,” Wood said.

Middletown North will get that rematch with St. John Vianney on Feb. 18 at Jersey Shore Arena.