MIDDLETOWN – The character of a team is best observed in response to a body blow suffered in the heat of competition. Such a punch was delivered by Manalapan in the second period of an opening night bout with the cooperative program of Freehold Boro, Colts Neck and Raritan, as a pair of unanswered Braves goals knotted the contest at 2-2 heading into the final frame.

Staggered but not fallen, the Colonials turned a short-handed situation into an offensive opportunity in the opening minutes of the third period, when DJ Clements notched his first of the season, before Ryan Sweeney snuck a wrist shot through traffic with just over three minutes remaining in regulation to seal a 4-2 victory.

“With just two on-ice practices and no scrimmages, we really didn’t have much time to prepare for tonight, so the way this played out is an example of their competitiveness, and how hard these guys are willing to work out there,” said coach Cody Reilly, an alumnus of the Freehold Boro program, who made his head coaching debut during this Jan. 16 matchup.

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Clements, a senior, was the Colonials second leading scorer a season ago, and didn’t skip a beat on opening night, playing a role in each of the cooperative’s four tallies, with a goal and three assists.

A two-way skater with the ability to clog up the neutral zone as well as lead an offensive rush, Clements logged the eventual game-winning goal with just over nine minutes left in the third period, when he chipped the puck out of his own zone during a Manalapan powerplay, chased it down in the Braves’ end and snuck home a quick wrist shot.

Clements set up Sweeney’s late-game goal by stick handling into the offensive zone, stopping short to shake a defender, and lifting a saucer pass across the slot to his defensive partner, who fired through a screen to make it a 4-2 final.

“Our roster may include guys from three different schools, but a lot of these guys have been skating together for the last couple of years, and it’s the leadership that helps us keep everyone together. (Clements) is one of the guys who helps provide that leadership on and off the ice,” Reilly added. “These guys work hard, they work together, and (Clements) certainly helps set that tone. It’s just the environment they’ve built.”

Fionn Thomann an Emerging Talent

Clements picked up secondary assists on the Colonials opening markers, when sophomore Fionn Thomann ripped a wrist shot over the stick-side blocker for 1-0 lead in the first.

Senior winger Anthony Caruso extended the Colonials’ lead to two goals when he took a lead pass from Thomann into the offensive zone and paddled a backhand release off the outstretched boot of the keeper.

Thomann, winger with size and speed, lined up with the Colonials top forward unit on Saturday night and, following his three-point performance, Reilly said the sophomore has earned his place amongst the cooperative’s most explosive scorers.

“The work (Thomann) put in this off-season is unbelievable. I can’t think of another guy who has come back to us as improved over one off-season as Fionn. The muscle he put on, the way his skating and stick-handling has improved; it’s indicative of how hard a worker he is,” Reilly said. “His defensive zone play is still improving, but from what he showed tonight filling in on that first line, I think he earned that spot.”

Colonials Go With Goaltending Tandem

The Colonials victory was led by strong play in the crease from senior Ryan O’Neill and Junior Anthony Guglieri, who combined to stop 20 of 22 shots faced.

O’Neill made the start and steered aside seven of eight Braves shots, before giving way to Guglieri, who made 13 saves, including all eight shots faced in the third period.

Reilly, who was a standout goaltender for Rowan University’s ACHA Division II program, believes competition in the crease will brings out the best in his keepers.

“Maintaining a sense of competition pushes you to get better every day, and it’s only pushing (O’Neill and Guglieri) in a positive direction. I’ve told them, in terms of the starter, we would go with the hot guy, but if they’re both playing at a high level, we’ll roll with both of them. Two hot goaltenders is a great problem to have,” Reilly said.

Colonials Upcoming Schedule

Jan. 20 – at Toms River North, 4 p.m.

Jan. 27 – vs Marlboro, 8:30 p.m.

Jan. 29 – at Southern Regional, 6 p.m.

Feb. 3 – vs Howell, 8:30 p.m.

Feb. 5 – at Wall Township, 6:20 p.m.

Feb. 12 – at Jackson Liberty, 4:50 p.m.

Feb. 17 – at Freehold Township, 8:30 p.m.

Feb. 26 – vs Ocean Township, 4:45 p.m.