By Mike Gurnis
On Wednesday, the top two teams in the Morris/Sussex area will meet for the only time in the regular season as Delbarton, No. 1 in the Morris-Sussex Hockey Report Top 10 travels to face No. 2 Pope John at Skylands Ice World for a 5 p.m. faceoff.
Delbarton, the three-time defending Non-Public state champions, has not missed a beat in the early part of the season as it has won eight in a row after a season-opening loss to Don Bosco Prep. This past weekend, it earned a pair of one-goal wins over Malden Catholic and Boston College High (both of Massachusetts), before earning a resounding 7-0 win over Gordon Conference rival Seton Hall Prep on Tuesday.
The Green Wave have posted shutouts in four of its eight wins, and goalie Brett Cleaves has stepped into the starter’s net with much success this season, as he has posted a sparkling .955 save percentage to this point. Offensively, it has been led by Michael Balzarotti, who has recorded seven goals and a team-high of 12 assists through nine games. James Falivene (9 g., 7 a.) and Max Williams (4 g., 8 a.) have also done a nice job on the offensive side of things.
Pope John, on the other hand, comes in at a perfect 5-0 (pending the outcome of its game on Tuesday against Notre Dame). While the team was bumped down to the National Division of the Gordon Conference after finishing in last in the American Division in 2017-18 (the American included Delbarton, Christian Brothers, Don Bosco Prep, and St. Augustine), its five wins have all come against quality opponents. It has won both of its Gordon-National games against Bergen Catholic and Bishop Eustace, while it has also taken down public-school powers in Hunterdon Central (last year’s Public A state champion) and Chatham (Public C runner-up last season)
Coach Ryan Brown’s squad is led by 2017-18 NJ.com First Team All-State goalie Matt Schoer, who comes in with a .955 save percentage, just like his counterpart at the other end of the ice in Cleaves. Johnny Cielo has emerged as the Lions leading scorer, with nine goals and five assists to his name at this point in the season. Steven Spetz has also contributed with four goals and seven assists.
While it figures to be a strong game between two of the best not just in this area, but in the state, there is an interesting historical note to this game. A scan of the database at NJHockey.org shows that at least since the 2002-03 season, Pope John has never earned a win over Delbarton. In that span, it is 0-28-3, with the most recent tie between the programs coming two seasons ago when they skated to a 4-4 regular season result.
It is the only scheduled meeting between the two teams this season, as both are in separate divisions in the Gordon Conference, and teams only play one crossover game against one another. But there is always the possibility the teams could meet again in the Gordon Cup or in the NJSIAA Non-Public state tournament.
Will Wednesday be the day where Pope John finally solves Delbarton, or will Delbarton keep its early-season winning ways alive? Be sure to follow @MorrisCtyHockey on Twitter for live updates starting at 5 p.m., and then after the game check our website for a full story of what happened at Skylands Ice World.