March 8, 2023

Capping Superb Season Which Saw it Win MCT Title, PHS Boys’ Hockey Advanced to Public A State Quarters

NO FEAR: Princeton High boys’ hockey goalie Noah Vitulli makes a save in action this winter. Sophomore Vitulli emerged as a key performer for the Tigers in his first season of varsity action. PHS won the Mercer County Tournament and advanced to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Public A state tournament quarterfinals this winter on the way to posting a 15-7-1 record. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Heading into its first-round contest of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Public A state tournament at Passaic Tech, the Princeton High boys’ hockey team didn’t know exactly what it was getting into.

“It was a game where we didn’t have much intel about them and I don’t know what they knew about us,” said PHS first-year head coach Rik Johnson as he looked ahead to the February 23 contest.

Coming off a dramatic 3-2 overtime victory against Hopewell Valley in the Mercer County Tournament final a week earlier, the Tigers were determined to stick their winning formula.

“We just figured, go in and do what we have been doing,” said Johnson.

“Going from the Mercer County tournament win, we went in with the same attitude — you have got to put your head down and get to work.”

PHS got to work early, jumping out to a 4-1 first period and never looking back on the way to an 8-5 triumph. It was a special win for the Tigers as it marked the program’s first win in the state tournament since topping Jackson Memorial 8-4 in the 2019 Public B tourney.

“The seniors were not quite on the team yet, so it was their first state win,” said Johnson, who got two goals and two assists from senior star Cooper Zullo in the win with junior T.T. Zhao chipping in two goals and an assist, senior Charles Ross tallying a goal and two assists, and sophomore Brendan Beatty contributing a goal and an assist.

“It is the first time we have put in Public A to my knowledge. Princeton is the smallest school playing in Public A. To get a win after that time frame in a new group against bigger schools, that is really tremendous.”

In the Public A quarterfinals, PHS ran into a tremendous Ridge squad, falling behind by three goals in the first period on the way to a 9-2 defeat as it ended the winter with a 15-7-1 record.

“They are defending state champs so you know they are tough,” said Johnson of Ridge, who went on to win its second straight state title by defeating Hillsborough 5-2 in the Public A final last Monday. “We were down 3-0 after the first period. We probably could have chipped away better.”

In reflecting in his first campaign at the helm of the program, Johnson was proud of what the Tigers accomplished.

“I am guessing we met or exceeded expectations from the team and family standpoint,” said Johnson. “As a first-year coach, I don’t know what people were expecting from me. I certainly set my goals and standards high so I wanted to meet those. The guys seemed happy, they really wanted the MCT.”

Johnson was very happy with the progress he saw from sophomore goalie Noah Vitulli, who was making his varsity debut this season.

“Noah just got stronger and stronger and made some big saves when we needed them,” said Johnson of Vitulli, who made 389 saves on the season and had an .821 save percentage. “There were some ugly games in there, but he really held us in there. His saves are tough ones. We are giving up a breakaway and he has got to defend that.”

The squad’s senior group of Cooper Zullo, Ethan Garlock, Gabe Silverstein, Julian Drezner, Charles Ross, Nico Vitaro, and Andrew Benevento made a strong impact on the program.

“They are just tremendous leaders all of the guys,” said Johnson. “We have the three captains in Cooper, Ethan, and Gabe. Julian didn’t need a letter on his shirt because he has an ‘S’ on his chest.”

Star forwards Zullo and Garlock gave the Tigers a powerful one-two punch offensively as Zullo tallied 52 points on 33 goals and 19 assists while Garlock piled up 44 points on 16 goals and 28 assists.

“Cooper always gives his best for us; he gets knocked down and he doesn’t want to come off the ice,” said Johnson. “He just wants to play. Ethan was fantastic, he started getting a little more physical as the season went on. That made him more imposing as a big guy.”

The quintet of Ross (8 goals, 12 assists), Benevento (4 goals, nine assists), Vitaro (2 goals, 5 assists), Silverstein (7 goals, 10 assists), and Drezner (5 goals, nine assists) proved depth and balance.

“Ross is all over the place on the ice, he played with Cooper’s line for the better part of two years,” said Johnson. “He is a good read and reactor. Andrew just hustles — he is a dog for the puck. We had Gabe, Nico, and Julian on one line and you had you had Coop, Benny, and Ross another line.”

Senior Garlock teamed up with sophomore Beatty (10 goals, 23 assists) and junior Zhao (12 goals, 19 assists).

“The second line was kind of young with Beatty and TT and Ethan centering them,” said Johnson. “They had played in peewees so they had chemistry there.”

A trio of freshmen — Anders Hedin (1 goal, 1 assist), Liam Campbell (3 goals, 2 assists), and Ryan Garlock (2 goals, 2 assists) — showed some chemistry as they formed one line.

“I call them the young guns,” said Johnson. “They really hustle. Assistant coach Cliff Higgins and I just have a blast watching them because they were like the energy line.”

The Tiger defensive unit was young this year and figures to be a strength of the team going forward.

“The entire defense returns for next year,” said Johnson. “Mike [Prete] and Graham [Baird] were one pairing and Jack [Zimet] and Oisin [O’Dell] were another. The third pairing was Wyatt [Arshan] and Ed [Zhao].”

Johnson, for his part, is looking forward to returning for a second year guiding the program.

“I focused on emotional management,” said Johnson, crediting assistant coach Higgins with being a great sounding board. “I would evaluate things in practice. I wanted to put everybody where they could succeed. It is pushing the right buttons. I think the senior class has had three different coaches in four years. If they will have me back, I will be back. On Tuesday, I start looking to next season.”