MIDDLETOWN — In recent years Middletown South was home to some of the biggest names and top tier talent the Shore Conference had to offer.
Skaters like Gavin Gulash, Ryan Lambert and Ryan D’Emilia garnered the majority of headlines coming out Eagles country, as their impressive efforts — and point totals — helped guide a this program to the Public B State Semifinals a season ago.
They were leaders, guiding lights, and held the reins of this Eagles outfit, but on Tuesday evening at Middletown Ice World, High School South’s (1-0-0, 1-0-0) 3-2 victory over crosstown rival Middletown North (0-1-0, 0-1-0) was more than an emotionally charged opening victory in front of a capacity crowd…but rather, a transfer of ownership.
“These guys took control of the program tonight,” said Eagles coach Tony Nemati. “There were incredibly talented players on this team who were in these sort of secondary roles, because they had some of the best guys around ahead of them. And they did some great things in those roles, but you could sense that they were waiting for this night. They were waiting for their chance to step into the spotlight, to step into those leadership roles and drive this team forward…and they didn’t disappoint.”
LEADING THE CHARGE: With under eight minutes remaining in regulation and Middletown North clinging to a 2-1 advantage — thanks to a pair of first period tallies by emerging junior Dan Quiles, who answered an early power play marker by High School South senior Mike Racioppi — the Eagles spread their wings and came careening into the offensive zone. It was a rush led by senior centerman Nick Lioudakis and game-tying goal converted by his fellow captain Deven Ralph.
Less than two minutes later that same combination helped put High School South on top, as Ralph gained the offensive zone, wheeled into the slot and ripped a shot off the pads of sophomore netminder Matt Corella (who was stellar with 26 high-pressure saves). The rebound landed on the stick of Lioudakis who rifled another wrister off the keeper’s pads, allowing Ralph to swoop in near the right circle and slap the eventual game-winning goal to the back of the twine with 5:41 to play.
“There’s nothing quite like this…I’ve never really experienced anything like it,” said Ralph of putting home the game-winner in a raucous rivalry atmosphere.
“It’s my senior year, and it just feels great to finally be able to lead the charge for this program,” added Ralph, who now has 40 career goals and 87 points. “We’ve always sort of looked to Gulash, Lambert, D’Emilia and guys like that, but this is our year to finally take over and put ourselves to the test. And we rose to the occasion tonight.”
EMOTIONAL UNDERTONES: Being part of that game-winning combination was a moment Lioudakis had dreamed about since sinking his teeth into the rivalry for the first time four years ago, and the moment stirred up some emotions for the senior.
“From the first game against North four years ago, you just knew that there was nothing like this setting. This is high school hockey at it’s absolute best,” Lioudakis said. “And being a senior in this situation, and being able to be the captain ofthis team, it’s something else. And to be able to come through for my teammates tonight, it’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”
As for High School North coach Matt Clemente, he spoke to the emotions in rushing through the Lions locker room following this heavyweight bout between local powers.
“We went into this game tonight knowing how good Middletown South is, but believing we were right there with them, and this rivalry is at it’s best when the teams are on par with one another, when they’re even, and you saw that tonight,” Clemente said. “It was honestly a fun hockey game to be part of, and would our guys have liked to come out on the winning end? Absolutely. But there was a lot of good things that came out of this game on our end.”
POSITIVE VIBES: Clemente spoke of the positive aspects of this game, and there were a multitude, including the emergence of new players in prominent roles. The Lions young second line of Quiles, Chris Repmann and Anthony Tavaresin particular was of note, as the trio helped produce both High School North goals, and created several other chances, including a pair of late period efforts that were thwarted by Eagles keeper Clay Simonsen.
SIMONSEN WILL SAVE US: Clay Simonsen has been at the backbone of High School South’s deep post-season runs the past two years, and his poise in the face of pressure was on full display in this contest, as the junior made 13 of his 20 saves in the second and third periods. Simonsen made nine stops in the third period alone, including a point-blank glove save on a release from the low slot by Tavares, and two more saves on a couple of breakaway attempts that preserved the Eagles advantage.
BASH BROTHERS: In front of Simonsen, the Eagles top pairing of Joe Guercio and Bobby Matthews made sure no Lions skaters could get comfortable in front of the crease or behind the net, as the senior duo threw the body with regularity, combining for double-digit hits in this rivalry tilt.
THE REMATCH: Like a heavyweight title fight with a incredible ending, the rematch is always anticipated, and thankfully we’ll see these two clubs battle it out again on Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 7:50 p.m. when the Middletown Mayor’s Cup will be on the line.