Pope John falls to St. John Vianney in Non-Public 1st round

By Mike Gurnis

After Pope John rallied from a two-goal deficit to tie the game early in the third period of Wednesday’s Non-Public first round game with St. John Vianney, it seemed as if momentum had fully swung in its favor.

But as quickly as it got back in the game, it got away just as quick.

Ninth-seeded St. John Vianney buried three goals in a span of 5:21 to take control and earn a 5-2 win over eighth-seeded Pope John in the first round of the NJSIAA Non-Public Tournament at Skylands Ice World in Stockholm.

The loss ended Pope John’s season at 11-9-2. St. John Vianney advanced to Monday’s quarterfinals, where it will take on top-seeded Delbarton.

“I think we have a good group here,” Pope John coach Ryan Brown said. “We played a tough schedule. But yeah, the end result today is disappointing. Give them credit. They played well and they found a way to put five (goals) behind us. You’re not going to beat anybody giving up five goals a game. We’re just not built that way to outscore somebody 6-5. Give (St. John Vianney) a lot of credit, I wish them luck against Delbarton on Monday.”

St. John Vianney (15-5-1) took control in the first and second periods behind a power play goal from Pat Haines and another tally from Blaise Lucosky in the second period to build a 2-0 lead. Pope John, despite out-shooting SJV for the game, struggled to get many quality chances offensively.

But when a double-minor was called on St. John Vianney late in the second period, that was the opportunity Pope John needed. Gavin O’Hara scored on the first part of the power play, before Nate Meola buried the game-tying goal on the second half of the power play to tie the game at two early in the third period.

Just over five minutes later, Nick Kasich gave St. John Vianney the lead. Then a pair of turnovers on breakouts led to goals by Lucosky and Mike Reed, which sealed Pope John’s fate.

“We worked on our power play,” Brown said. “We had our second unit score the first goal at the end of the second, and our first unit gets the goal to tie it, and then we have some momentum. Then we gave it right back to them. We turned the puck over, next thing you know it’s 4-2, and that’s the game. 

He added, “I don’t think we played the pace we normally play at. We just fumbled the puck a lot tonight. Give them credit, they took every advantage of our mistakes, and they’re a good team. They played hard and they have some talented guys. When they got their opportunities, they buried them.”

It was a tough ending for a Pope John squad that re-established itself as one of the better teams in the state this season. A program that is used to being a Top 10 team in the state had finished below .500 the last three years, going 6-18-1 in 2019-20 before going 2-5-2 in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season. It bounced back a bit with a 7-10-7 mark last season, but took a big step forward this year.

The six-man senior class was a major part of the turnaround. Goalie Tyler Paluzzi, defenseman Jack Kelmer, and forward Owen Lapinski were all with the program from the beginning, and took their lumps while the team won a combined eight games in their first two years. Forwards Nathan Meola and Emporio Iencio, along with defenseman Gavin O’Hara, all transferred into the program during their high school careers and proved to be impact players.

“Those kids came in at a tough time,” Brown said of his senior class. “We were a top-ten team for four or five years prior to their arrival. We had a real good senior class leave that year, and then we lost a bunch of underclassmen to prep and juniors. So these freshmen were kind of thrown to the wolves, when they quite honestly weren’t really ready for that role in the lineup. Guys like Kelmer, Lapinski, they played a lot of minutes as freshmen and took their lumps along the way. But they hung in there and they’re a good group of guys.

“A guy like Owen (Lapinski), a guy like Jack Kelmer, they’re good leaders and they’re real good kids. I was glad that they were part of the turnaround for us, to get us back to where we belong, which is playing meaningful hockey games. I wish for their sake they would’ve gotten another opportunity.”

First period
SJV — Pat Haines (James Lucosky, Mike Reed) 8:05 PPG
Second period
SJV — Blaise Lucosky (Nick Kasich, James Lucosky) 12:24
PJ — Gavin O’Hara 0:30 PPG
Third period
PJ — Nathan Meola (Matt Hughes, Declan Murphy) 14:10 PPG
SJV — Nick Kasich (Dom Mazzella) 9:02
SJV — Blaise Lucosky 5:40
SJV — Mike Reed (Blaise Lucosky) 3:41

E-mail Mike Gurnis at michaelgurnis@gmail.com

Donate to the Morris-Sussex Hockey Report via GoFundMe: https://gofund.me/7478f834

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