CRANFORD - When the opportunity came for Mike Ozolnieks to become head coach of his high school alma matter, he didn't think twice.
Since its inception in 1992, the Cranford High School hockey team had been coached by one man, Richard Hurley. Hurley announced his retirement following the 2017-18 season, and Ozolnieks is looking to bring prestige back to the program.
"I never even knew if the opportunity would come up," said Ozolnieks. "I was very excited. In the interview, I said that I'm meant for this job. I'm born and bred here and want to bring back some pride to Cranford hockey. I feel Cranford sports as a whole, a lot of teams are doing really well, and I want hockey to be right up there with everybody else. I want to bring titles and championships to this town."
The first game of the season for the Cougars saw them battle to a 1-1 with tie Westfield, but in game two, Cranford suffered a 7-0 loss to Millburn. Third time was the charm though as Cranford defeated Bayonne, 6-1, at Warinanco Park Ice Rink on Monday night.
The first period saw a strong offensive and defensive effort by the cougars who held Bayonne to just two shots on goal while rattling off 11 of their own but failed to convert. Cranford finally got things rolling 3:43 into the second period when Matt Womelsdorf netted a power-play goal, assisted by Jack Templeton. Womelsdorf's goal awoke the Cougars offense as Cranford lit the lamp four more times to take a 5-1 lead into the final period.
"We've been working with our forwards to get them moving down low and get more creative," said Ozolnieks. "We do a good job of getting the puck in the zone, but then once we do, everybody is just standing around. That was what we had talked about in-between periods and we made a couple of adjustments. I felt it was there in the first period, but once they got the confidence to score one, it became six."
All six goals by the Cougars were by a different scorer. Following Womelsdorf's goal, Templeton, Michael Schneider, Jake Anderson, Luke Pachkowski, and Ryan Echavarria each added one. Anderson and Pachkowski went back-to-back at the end of the second period in a 21-second span.
"It's beautiful. It's music to my ears," Ozolnieks said. "We're a team. Team first. Everything is team mentality. I know how a lot of high school teams rely on a top line to get all of their points for them. That's not the way we're playing hockey here. We're playing as a group with defense first. My biggest thing is playing defense, and we'll get goals from there."
The Cranford Cougars will take on the Johnson Crusaders at Warinanco Park Ice Rink on Wednesday at 6:45 p.m.