LAST SEASON: Pope John finished 2017-18 with a 14-11-1 record, and reached the Non-Public quarterfinals where it lost to top-seeded Don Bosco Prep in overtime, despite an incredible 79-save effort by Matt Schoer.
HEAD COACH: Ryan Brown, 11th year. 154-80-28 career record.
CONFERENCE AND CLASSIFICATION: Gordon Conference-National Division (moved from American); NJSIAA Non-Public.
KEY PLAYERS GRADUATED: Pope John graduated several players from last year’s team, most notably forwards Chris Walako, Eric Vanderhoff and Ryan Stevens. Walako (29 g., 15 a.) and Vanderhoff (21 g., 22 a.) were the top two goal scorers on the team, while Stevens finished third on the team in scoring (9 g., 15 a.).
FORWARDS: While the Lions graduated a talented forward trio from last year, there are still some nice players returning up front led by senior Steven Spetz (7 g., 8 a.). Junior Alex Blaszak (3 g., 12 a.) and sophomore Johnny Cielo (13 g., 8 a.) are also promising forwards, while freshman Lucas Buchanan may also contribute right away.
DEFENSE: Pope John returns a very experienced group on defense from last year, as several players who played impactful minutes are going to be counted on again. All but one defenseman from last year’s team are back on the ice this year. Those experienced defensemen include senior Jake Ferguson, senior Mike Quatrella, junior Drew Buchanan and sophomore Ryan Cielo.
GOALTENDING: You’d be hard-pressed to find a better goaltender in NJ high school hockey than senior Matt Schoer. During his junior season, he was a First Team All-State pick by NJ.com and the Star-Ledger as well as a First Team Gordon Conference pick after a year in which he posted an impressive .925 save percentage. He also nearly willed his team to an upset over Don Bosco in the quarterfinals, as he stopped an eye-popping 79 of 81 shots in a 2-1 overtime loss. He faced a lot of work while going up against a difficult Gordon Conference schedule and gave his team a chance to win just about each game. He faced 30 or more shots in nine of his 18 appearances last year, including four in which he faced over 40.
OUTLOOK: Just two seasons ago, Pope John reached the Non-Public semifinals and the Gordon Cup final. With perhaps the best goaltender in the state on its side, Pope John has a legitimate chance to reach that level once again this year. If the team can use its experience to improve defensively and limit the amount of high-danger chances that Schoer faces, that will make this team that much tougher to beat. It will have its hands full with a tough schedule in the Gordon Conference as it always does, but look for the Lions to compete for the top spot in the National Division- like it did in 2016-17.