By Brian Deakyne
Middletown – No one expected it.
After a regular season filled with turmoil, the Middletown South Eagles ice hockey team seemed to hold a fainting chance in the NJSIAA Public ‘B’ state playoffs last spring.
Then Middletown South soared.
Seeded 11th, they slid through everyone on their half of the bracket, beating Nutley, sixth-seeded Princeton, third-seeded Mountain Lakes and, eventually, second-seeded Brick Township in the semi-finals — who had upended the Eagles twice in the regular season to plant themselves a place in the state final, where they fell to top-seeded Chatham, 7-3, at the Prudential Center in Newark.
That’s where head coach Stan Gutt envisioned his plan for the 2011-2012 season.
“We sat in that locker room, and decided that this was going to be the goal for next season, that we wanted to get back here,” Gutt said, “The team is hungry to return to the state final and it’s our top goal. We want to get back there.”
After issues internally, that eventually forced forwards Matt and Brett Johnson to leave the team midway through January, the Eagles run was an improbable one, but proved to give them hope moving forward.
Goalie Chris Marsillo lead Middletown South through that playoff run, allowing a goals against average of 3 during the five-game playoff run.
Marsillo — a three year starter for the Eagles — had an ability to steal games, and, although his departure will be a heavy one, Gutt believes they have the guys to fill that difficult void.
Senior Shubhro Bose will be taking over for Marsillo, after serving as his back-up for the past three seasons.
“Chris was a great goalie for us, and he will be missed, but we have a couple of good goalies behind him,” Gutt said, “Shubhro has been his back-up for three years now, and he is more than ready to take over as the starter. Behind him, Trevor Ralph is a good goalie as well. We have confidence in both of them to be good goalies.”
Marsillo had a GAA of 2.66 in 20 games for the Eagles, who went 15-8-3 last year.
Middletown South will be returning their top scorer, as well, in Connor Clifton, who notched an impressive 47 points last season on 27 goals and 20 assists. Tyler Ralph, the team’s second-leading scorer from last season, is returning for his senior season after putting up 36 points on 18 goals and 18 assists.
Defensively, the Eagles will need the productive play from Jimmy Burns, who stepped up throughout the playoffs last year, and notched 21 total points from the blue-line. With inexperience in net, the play of Burns will be key for Middletown South.
Last season, the Eagles finished in third place in the Shore ‘A’ division, and were ousted by Howell in the first round of the Handchen Cup — a tournament played among the top eight teams in the Shore ‘A’ and Shore ‘B’ divisions.
They finished behind Brick Township and Red Bank Catholic, teams that annually rank in the upper tier of the division. They also finished behind Christian Brothers Academy, but they do not compete in the Handchen Cup.
Now, Middletown South aims to play a full-season at their top-level, and finish at the top of the division.
“To tell you the truth, the goal is to be at the top of the division. We want to be able to compete with the likes of Brick Township, Red Bank Catholic and CBA. It’s a tough division, but playing those games gets us ready for post-season play,” Gutt said.
Middletown South opens their season on Dec. 2, when they take on Monsignor Donovan in Toms River.