WALL — Moments like the one St. John Vianney experienced on Tuesday evening are the reason coach Mick Messemer took the Lancers head coaching position four years ago.
When the final seconds ran down on the third period, and a warm embrace with his skaters and coaching staff coincided with a 5-3 triumph over perennial Gordon Conference power St. Augustine, his vision of what the Lancers program could become — a club capable of not only skating with, but taking it to the Garden State’s top parochial powers — had been realized.
“St. Augustine is a heck of a program…they have a state championship under their belt, and that’s the level I envisioned our program could be on,” Messemer said following Tuesday’s victory. “Wins like tonight are why I accepted the job four years ago. I knew St. John Vianney was a sleeping giant in the state. I wanted to help get the program get back to where it once was, back to No. 1 in the state. We’re getting their little by little, and this is a big step in the right direction.”
Tuesday’s charge was led by the emerging sophomore Jake LaRusso, as the winger continued to make his case for the designation of the Shore Conference’s premier skill player, notching his first career hat trick effort in one of the biggest wins in program history.
“It feels good to finally get three, especially in a great team win like this,” said LaRusso, who is now tied for the team lead in point-production with 15 on a club-best nine goals and six assists through five games. “Getting three, it’s an incredible feeling. I played defense last year, so the opportunities to score weren’t as available as they are now. But this is something I’m going to remember forever.”
LaRusso’s first of the night came off slick dish into the slot by junior linemate John Gutt, who chased down a loose puck below the goal line and tossed a no-look pass on to the sophomore’s tape, from which is was deposited underneath the crossbar for a 2-0 lead.
The sophomore made it four-goal game three minutes into the second period, when he took a lead pass from senior Brett Schneider, before the puck around a defender and across the slot to his backhand, and pulling it through the crease to his forehand to beat the keeper through the glove-side.
LaRusso’s completed his three-goal effort with under 30 seconds remaining in regulation, when slid a shot from the neutral zone into an empty net to make it a 5-3 final.
“This gives us huge confidence as me forward with the season,” LaRusso added. “Beating a team like [St. Augustine], it’s unreal. The teams that they beat on a regular basis, this shows that we can play with the top guys in the state, and be a real contender come tournament time.”
Kevyn Rigatti opened the scoring in this contest at 5:52 of the first period, when freshman defenseman AJ Micalizzi forced a neutral zone turnover, and slid a pass through center ice that sprung the senior. Rigatti moved in, froze the keeper with a head-fake and flicked his fourth of the year to the back of the net on the backhand.
“We came into this game feeling a little nervous, and I could tell,” Rigatti said. “But as soon as we got that first one, you could feel all the nerves melt away. I’m just really happy for everyone on our team, and I know getting that first one was big.”
Schneider made it a 3-0 Lancers advantage in the final minute of the opening frame when the senior winger stick-handled end to end, before shimmying through a pair of Hermits defenders, and beating the keeper from the slot with a wrist shot through the blocker-side for his third goal of the year.
“I knew there was no time left in the period, and I knew we needed a boost heading into the second. I saw an opportunity to be aggressive and I took it,” Schneider said. “This is the best team I’ve been a part of in my time at St. John Vianney, and I think this win proves that. It shows that if we continue to work hard and play at this level that we can skate with anyone, and go pretty far in states and the conference tournament.”
John Gelatt started the game at his normal top-line center position, but as he did in a competitive meeting with Middletown South last Friday, the junior standout was shifted back to the defensive end in hopes of quelling the St. Augustine attack. Gelatt still picked up a pair of assists on those first period tallies by LaRusso and Schneider, tying him for the team-lead in scoring with four goals and 11 helpers.
Jeremy Connor was impressive once again between the pipes, steering aside 29 of 32 shots faced, including all 13 Hermits attempts in the opening period, allowing the Lancers to build a pivotal three-goal lead in the first frame.
The Lancers will square off with another Gordon Conference foe in CBA, when the pair of local titans clash at the Navesink Country Club on Jan. 3.