By Mike Gurnis
RANDOLPH — It has been a season full of growing pains for Randolph.
The Rams, who have an uncharacteristically young roster which features six freshmen, have gone through a lot of ups-and-downs throughout the season. But, it has recently put together a solid stretch of hockey where it had gone 3-0-3 in six games, capped off by back-to-back Mennen Division wins over Morristown-Beard and Madison.
Friday’s opponent, however, was a completely different animal.
It took on Northern Highlands, which is currently ranked No. 8 in NJ.com’s Top 20, which makes it the highest-ranked public school team. Just 24 hours earlier, it had gone through an emotional game, a 5-2 loss to No. 2 Don Bosco Prep in the Bergen County Tournament final.
Randolph ultimately lost, 3-1 to the Highlanders, as Northern Highlands built a two-goal lead early in the third period and held off Randolph’s late rally attempt. But even though it may have been a bit of a mismatch in terms of the results each team has gotten this season, Randolph proved it was ready for the challenge and showed itself well against one of the state’s elite.
“We played a good game, I thought,” Randolph coach Rich McLaughlin said. “Our effort was really good and we worked hard all game long. We didn’t get any bounces. We have to work harder around the offensive net and get some rebounds, which we don’t do. We’re not pounding it yet, like we should. But they’re a good team. It was a good game.”
The Rams out-shot Northern Highlands, 29-23 for the game. Northern Highlands goalie Daniel Moor, who has impressed all season, put together a big 28-save performance to shut the door on Randolph.
Northern Highlands jumped on top midway through the second period on Constantine Manos’ goal. The lead extended to 2-0 3:39 into the third when Vincenzo Capano finished off a feed from Brent Beswick.
Randolph, however, was not deterred, and got the response goal it was looking for. Just 2:12 later, Jack Barry’s shot found its way through a screen and beat Moor, cutting the deficit to 2-1.
It kept up the pressure for the rest of the game, but Moor, along with his defensemen in Alex Zeng, Constantine Manos, Nicholas Lardieri, and Peirson DeBruyn, put together a strong effort to prevent Randolph from getting any second-chance opportunities.
It sealed the game with Capano’s empty-net goal with 20 seconds left.
“We didn’t get any second chances,” McLaughlin said. “We didn’t get anything inside the dots. We had too many shots from the outside where we just couldn’t find any rebounds. The goalie did a good job of clearing his rebounds, their defensemen and the whole group did.”
Randolph had hopes of pulling off another incredible third period comeback on Friday, 10 days after it erased a four-goal deficit with four goals in the third period to tie Summit, 4-4. While it was unable to complete the comeback on Friday, it’s a team that has proven it won’t be deterred regardless of what the scoreboard says.
“We’ve had a couple of games like that this year. We were down at Summit 4-0, and we came back,” McLaughlin said. “These guys don’t quit. The one thing we don’t do is quit. We work hard. Once we do it one time- I wish we could’ve come back all the way- but we don’t quit and we came back.”
It’s the type of game that Randolph can use to measure where it is a this point in the season. For a team that has as much youth and inexperience as it does, getting the chance to play an elite out-of-conference team is something that can only further its development.
Going toe-to-toe with that type of team, even in a loss, is even better. The team has relied heavily on key freshmen in Jase Zangara, Andrew George, and Jacob Campbell, and Friday’s game gave those players a taste of what to expect in the coming weeks with the postseason upcoming.
“They’re little guys yet, in a lot of ways. They haven’t been through a game like this,” McLaughlin said. “They can tell you all they want about their club hockey, but games like this are harder in high school, because you’re playing against 18 year old kids, when you’re 14. They’ve never played four years up. So you’re bouncing into a kid who’s 150, 180 pounds. They work hard, it’s a good sign. We just have to keep improving every day.”
The loss dropped Randolph to 5-5-3 overall. The threshold for automatically qualifying for the state tournament is a .500 record, although teams can apply for an at-large bid if they’re no more than four games below .500.
The Rams, however, don’t want to leave that to chance, and understand that it will need to start earning some wins prior to the Feb. 7 cut-off date.
“I think we’ve grown. Our goal right now- we’ve got to get into the state playoffs,” McLaughlin said. “We can’t have moral victories, we have to win a couple of games now. I think we’re at .500 now. We’ve got some games left where we’ve got to win. We just have to start winning. But yeah, we’ve gotten better every day, I believe.”
First star: Daniel Moor, Northern Highlands, G, So.: 28 saves
Second star: Vincenzo Capano, Northern Highlands, F, So.: 2 goals
Third star: Jack Barry, Randolph, F, Jr.- 1 goal
NH — Constantine Manos (Alex Zeng) 6:44
NH — Vincenzo Capano (Brent Beswick) 11:21
RAN– Jack Barry (Jacob Campbell) 9:09
NH — Vincenzo Capano (Jake Baratta, Constantine Manos) 0:20 ENG
Shots on goal: Randolph 29, Northern Highlands 23
Saves: Daniel Moor (Northern Highlands) 28, Connor Thomas (Randolph) 20
Team records: Northern Highlands 13-3-2, Randolph 5-5-3.