The St. Augustine Prep ice hockey team will open its season on the road Friday in a Gordon Conference game at Morristown-Beard at 3:45 p.m.
Morristown-Beard ended the Hermits’ season last March with a 6-2 win in the state Non-Public quarterfinals.
This year, St. Augustine hopes a hot start can give it a better idea of how far it can go in March.
“It’s a little early to gauge because it’s so early in the year,” Hermits coach Tim Fingerhut said Tuesday. “But we obviously want to be back in the state finals. We’re hoping to make it to the final four so that we’re in position to play to get there.”
The Hermits last played in the state finals in 2011, losing 3-2 to Delbarton.
Fingerhut said Delbarton again will be one of the top teams in the state, along with Christian Brothers Academy, Gloucester Catholic and Don Bosco Prep.
The Hermits are led by a cast of returning players such as senior forwards Dalton O’Conner and Aaron Hannah and senior goaltender Dylan Gravenstine.
“I think this year is a lot more skilled of a team,” O’Conner, 18, of Washington Township said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We’re not as big but are more skilled. A lot of the guys play (club hockey) together so they already have that connection, that bond. I think we’re going to be a pretty good team.”
Senior defenseman Frank Malamut also will be counted on to play a lot of minutes.
“We have a good amount of seniors,” Fingerhut said. “We’re hoping all of them take on a leadership role. It’s something we’ve talked to them about.”
Fingerhut said the team’s strength is it’s offensive depth, and he likely will use three scoring lines.
“Offensively, we’re deep,” Fingerhut said. “We’ve got three offensively oriented lines. And anybody that we plug in on the fourth line will be fine, too.”
The Hermits won their only preseason game, a 6-3 decision, over Malvern Prep (Pa.) at Ice Line Arena in West Chester on Monday. Sophomore forward Austin Rann led the Hermits with two goals.
The Hermits also expect to be strong in goal with both Gravenstine and junior Sam Fitzpatrick returning.
Fingerhut said if the team has a question mark it will be defense. The Hermits graduated five starting defensemen from a teasm that went 8-9-3.
Also new for the Hermits will be their home rink. The team will be moving practices and games from Canlan Ice Sports Arena in Vineland, which closed last spring, to the Igloo Ice Rink in Mount Laurel.
Fingerhut said the move places the team almost an hour from St. Augustine’s campus.
“We haven’t seen many problems because these kids either drive themselves or can be bussed,” Fingerhut said. “It’s a little difficult for the kids that live near the shore, but they have been car pooling and make it work.”
O’Conner said the move worries him for a different reason: fan support.
“It’s going to take some getting used to,” O’Conner said. “Last year, with the rink being so close, a lot of fans would go. Our fans, our ‘rowdies,’ have a lot to do with the games. I hope we still get a good turnout, they’re a crucial part to our success.”
O’Conner said there are eight seniors on the team who were sophomores during the Hermits last run to the state finals. He said that it may take a few games to settle in, but the team is focused on another deep run.
“We have the experience,” O’Conner said. “We know how to play and what we’re expected to do. I feel if we stick to our game plan and how coach wants us to play, we can very possibly make another state championship run this year.”
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