BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - It’s rare for a high school coach to field a veteran-heavy team year-in and year-out.
Every once in a while, coaches are forced to endure a season filled with growing pains as a result of fielding a relatively young team.
Such was the case last season for Governor Livingston Highlanders boys’ hockey coach Matt Anderson.
Anderson’s team experienced its fair share of ups and downs last season en route to a 9-12-2 record.
But Anderson is confident his team will be better for it during the 2015-2016 season.
Anderson’s confidence is justified. For every rebuilding season a coach experiences, the coach is almost assured of a resurgent season and perhaps that resurgence could occur as early as this season for Anderson and his team.
“We have great senior leadership and a younger core of very talented, hard-working players who are committed to the continued development of a high school hockey program that will continue to move up the state rankings,” Anderson, who is entering his third season as the team’s head coach, said.
“The overall speed and skill level certainly improved over the offseason, and the kids look like they are in great shape during the preseason.”
The Highlanders’ preseason included a 3-1 win over Passaic Valley in a pre-Thanksgiving scrimmage. Sophomore Kyle Merz, who moved to goalie during the offseason, had a nice performance in net, as well as freshman goalie Nick Papa.
Merz and Papa will join junior Michael Tang as the backups to senior goalie Matt Altomare. Big things are expected from Altomare, who “looks like he is on top of his game and ready for a big season,” according to Anderson.
Even though the Highlanders are an overall small team, they have gotten faster, particularly on defense.
On the back end, sophomore defenseman Brian Gray will see a lot of action thanks to his size and strong play in the defensive zone. Kyle Wahlers is another sophomore that has improved tremendously on defense and will move to the blue line full-time this season.
Senior Ryan Nieves and junior Rob Monroy will join Gray and Wahlers to round out the top four on defense.
“With such a deep lineup now, we have the luxury of putting players into roles on the team that best suit their size and skill sets, which will hopefully allow them to impress,” Anderson said.
Anderson is excited about the trio of senior Matt Koutsaftes, sophomore Greg Fetter, and freshman Zach Miller. All three may be small in size, but play very strong “200-foot games” as Anderson likes to reference it.
“Matt, Greg, and Zach are all fast, physical, and play a responsible defensive game,” Anderson said. “You won’t see them score a ton of goals, but they will be tasked with the responsibility of slowing down the top units of the other local teams which should free up our top goal scorers to then focus on doing what they do best.”
Speaking of scoring goals, Anderson said to look for junior Danny Kramer (12 goals, 27 points last season), sophomore Billy Alexander (14 goals, 23 points last season), and sophomore Ryan Monroy (5 goals, 5 assists last season) to all add to their point totals from a year ago.
Senior Thomas Sousa, sophomore Ed Sot, sophomore Aidan Gallaher, and sophomore Alex Etterman, sophomore Michael Stewart complete the returning roster.
As was the case in previous seasons, the Highlanders once again added another strong freshmen class. Out of the eight freshmen, Anderson expects Miller and fellow forwards Carson Wahlers and Ryan Erickson to contribute immediately.
Add up the experience, youth and overall depth of this squad, and you get the potential for a very exciting season in Berkeley Heights.
“We will be a fast and fun team to watch this season,” Anderson said. “Hopefully with more depth, we will find the consistency that we lacked last season, and rattle off enough big wins to make a statement.”