South Jersey High School Hockey League games usually don't have fans with school names painted on their chests.
Most of the time, family members make up the majority of the crowd.
The playoffs, which continue today, might mean even more to the players because of that.
"Hopefully we can bring a championship home and show that Mainland (Regional High School) isn't just a football and lacrosse school," said Dennis McGrath, coach of the Mainland Mustangs club team in the SJHSHL.
The Mustangs are part of the five-team Varsity Tier 3 division, along with Middle Township, St. Joseph, Lower Cape May Regional and Riverfront. While four of the five teams bear the names of high schools
- Delran-based Riverfront does not - the club teams are not technically affiliated with the schools.
Due mostly to the high costs of the sport and a lack of participation, the only local high schools with varsity ice hockey teams are St. Augustine Prep and Southern Regional.
Club teams have volunteer coaches, and the players or their families shoulder the costs. They also can draw from other schools to fill out their teams: Mainland features players from Ocean City, Egg Harbor Township and Holy Spirit, while Middle Township has players from Wildwood Catholic, Buena Regional and Pinelands Regional.
Three teams still are alive in the Tier 3 playoffs: Top-seeded Riverfront, No. 2 St. Joseph and No. 3 Mainland. The latter two will meet in an elimination game at 5:40 p.m. today in Voorhees.
Mainland captain Paddy McFadden, who is a senior at Holy Spirit, said bringing home a title would mean a lot for a team that doesn't get much recognition.
"Whether we're a club sport or not, it still matters the same to us," said McFadden, a Northfield resident. "Just to get a championship, I think it would be self-gratifying as well as maybe letting everyone else know we're still good and we still matter and we're actually a good team."
McFadden, like several of his teammates, plays other sports at the varsity level. He runs cross country and rows crew for Holy Spirit.
"When I go onto the ice, I feel like I'm a part of Mainland," McFadden said. "It's just different. I get to experience both schools and feel like I'm a part of both schools."
Time and money
Participation requires an intense commitment. In addition to the costs of equipment and ice time, there is the fact that Flyers Skate Zone Atlantic City is the only major rink in Atlantic, Cape May or Cumberland counties since the closing of Canlan Ice Sports in Vineland last year.
Most of the games are in Voorhees, Mount Laurel (The Igloo Ice Rink) or Sewell (Hollydell Ice Arena). Even games and practices in Atlantic City are a long drive for Middle Township and Lower Cape May players.
"It's a minimum of 45 minutes away," Middle coach Joe Seddon said. "It's not easy."
The commitment from the coaches is just as significant, if not more so. McGrath, a 28-year-old Northfield Public Works employee, and Seddon, a 41-year-old contractor, volunteer because of their passion for the game.
Seddon started the Middle program this season, and while his team won only one regular-season game, it nearly knocked off St. Joseph in a playoff elimination game last Monday. Middle jumped to a 2-1 lead before losing 3-2.
"When I was in high school (at Middle), I always wanted to play ice hockey, but we didn't even have a street hockey rink around us," Seddon said. "I just really decided that nobody else was going to step up and give the kids from this area the chance to play."
The Mainland and St. Joseph teams are further along. St. Joseph was a school-sanctioned varsity team until last season, and the Wildcats dealt Riverfront (13-2-2) its only two losses this season. Mainland, meanwhile, has taken three of four from St. Joseph this season, including a 3-2 win in the first round of the playoffs, and all four games have been decided by one goal.
"In my eyes, we're one of the best teams in the area, and hopefully in the playoffs we can prove it," McGrath said.
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