February 15, 2023

Senior Star Zullo Leads the Way with a Hat Trick As PHS Boys’ Hockey Tops Paul VI in MCT Semis

TITLE CHASE: Princeton High boys’ hockey player Cooper Zullo, right, chases after the puck last Monday as second-seeded PHS faced sixth-seeded Paul VI-Camden Catholic in the Mercer County Tournament semifinals. Senior star forward and captain Zullo tallied three goals in the contest as the Tigers prevailed 7-4 and improved to 13-6-1. PHS will face fourth-seeded Hopewell Valley in the MCT final on February 15 at the Mercer County Skating Center. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Two weeks ago, the Princeton High boys’ hockey team fell behind Paul VI-Camden Catholic 4-0 in the second period before rallying to pull out a dramatic 6-5 victory.

When the foes met last Monday in the Mercer County Tournament semifinals, Cooper Zullo and his PHS teammates were determined to get off to a better start in the rematch.

“I don’t think we played a very good first two periods against them the first time and it showed,” said Tiger senior star forward and captain Zullo.

“That was definitely a point of emphasis. We said coming into this game they are not going to give it to us. We have to work for it, especially against a team like that. They are a team that works hard, they are very well coached. They have come a long way over the four years that I have been here.”

Late in the first period with second-seeded PHS and sixth-seeded Paul VI locked in a scoreless tie, Zullo took matters into his own hands. Looking to clear the puck on a penalty kill, Zullo flipped it from the red line and watched in amazement as it bounced past the Paul VI goalie into the back of the net with 2:00 left in the period.

“I was just trying to get the puck deep,” said a smiling Zullo. “I think this ice has a history of doing its own thing, it has a mind of its own. That was the goal there to put it on net and see what happens. That is my curve ball.”

Zullo’s tally triggered an outburst for the Tigers as T.T. Zhao scored 15 seconds later and Ethan Garlock scored with 40 seconds left in the period and then added a second goal 2:38 into the second period as PHS built a 4-0 lead.

“We knew that once one was going to come, that the rest were going to come and that is exactly what happened,” said Zullo. “We scored four in five minutes. We knew we had to score early because it was not over yet.”

Paul VI, though, fought back with two unanswered goals to make it a 4-2 game heading into the third period.

“We came to the locker room and I think there were some nerves,” said Zullo, reflecting on the mood at the second intermission. “But we knew that if we stuck to our game plan and if we got the first one coming into the third, we would have no problem.”

Once again, Zullo took care of business himself, scoring two goals in the first 3:11 of the third period as PHS extended its lead to 6-2 and never looked back on the way to a 7-4 victory. As a result, PHS, now 13-6-1, advanced to the MCT final where it will face fourth-seeded Hopewell Valley on February 15 at the Mercer County Skating Center.

“Our saying for tonight and for Wednesday is that we are not satisfied until that buzzer goes off,” said Zullo. “There is no satisfaction in any goal that we score.”

Zullo did enjoy his third period goals. “I had a similar chance in the second period and I shot it right into his chest; I think I took a deep breath and closed my eyes and just shot the puck,” said Zullo, reflecting on his first goal of the period. “I don’t want to give him the same look. I was coming down the right side again but hey sometimes you get lucky.”

PHS is relishing the chance to return to the MCT final, looking to make amends after falling 7-2 to Notre Dame in the 2022 county championship game.

“Everyone knows what happened last year to us and that definitely left a bad taste in our mouth,” said Zullo. “We know that hey this Hopewell team beat Robbinsville (3-1 in the MCT semi), we didn’t beat Robbinsville so we are going to have a tough time. They are very well coached over there. We beat Notre Dame twice last year and they killed us in the final. Hopewell has got two really good goalies and whichever one plays, we are going to be ready. We just have to put pucks on net.”

The Tigers have shored up their defense in the MCT as sophomore goalie Noah Vitulli has stepped up, earning his first shutout in a 5-0 win over the WWP Hockey Co-op in the county quarters and then made 24 saves against Paul VI.

“We knew coming into this year that our goaltending wasn’t going to be as strong and we have to help him out,” said Zullo. “Noah is doing the best that he can, he is playing incredibly well right now. We are going to ride that as long as we can. When he helps us out, we can help him out.”

PHS head coach Rik Johnson was confident that his squad would get off to a strong start in round two against Paul VI.

“That was the game plan, we knew we had to come in and start quick,” said Johnson. “We are always playing ourselves, that is always the starting point. The captains and coaches talked over the weekend and we went over the game plan so they were really geared up.”

While things got a little dicey in the second period, Johnson was confident that the Tigers would close the deal.

“I kind of flipped out on them because they did get the two goals,” said Johnson, reflecting on his message at the second intermission. “It was just relax and everything was going to be fine.”

Johnson was not surprised that Zullo came through in the third period.

“There is very little I have to do with him,” said Johnson. “It is set him loose and make sure his head is straight. That is about it, he will do the rest.”

As PHS looks ahead to the title game matchup against HoVal, Johnson wants his squad to stay even-keeled.

“It is nice to get back, we have to approach it as just another game,” said Johnson. “We can’t make it too much and get emotional. It is just go play our game.”

Johnson knows that the Bulldogs are going to give PHS a good game.

“They are going to be tough, they are going to be hungry,” said Johnson, whose team topped HoVal 4-2 on December 19 and 5-2 on January 11. “I am sure they are feeling good having beaten Robbinsville-Allentown. We didn’t beat Robbinsville this year.”

With PHS clicking at both ends of the ice, Johnson is feeling good about his team’s prospects.

“Something we have been trying to concentrate on is really being more responsible defensively,” said Johnson. “We have got the fire power offensively, that runs itself.”

Zullo and his classmates are fired up to go out with a bang in their final MCT.

“I saw what happened to the seniors last year, they were pretty upset after the game,” said Zullo. “I don’t want to end my years like that, so if I can end it with a win, that is what we are going to do.”