A year ago, the Point Boro ice hockey team’s season was over. It hadn’t gone well – lots of losses, lots of internal turmoil.
Today, the Panthers are in the midst of the best season in their 10-year history.
A division title. A trip to the Shore Conference Tournament’s Dowd Cup, where they beat Freehold 4-0 before falling to Marlboro in the semifinals. On Sunday, they beat Lakeland 2 to 1 in the state playoffs.
And at 4:30 p.m. today, they face off against Paramus at the Ice House in Hackensack,in the second round of the NJSIAA public schools tournament. It is the farthest Point Boro (16-3-2) has been in the state playoffs in the program's 10-year history.
At the root of the improvement is Alex DePalma. Approached to take over the team a year ago, the longtime club and travel coach who spent a couple of years at Seton Hall, had reservations, but took the job.
What he found was a program in disarray.
“We had problems with sportsmanship, with the way we played games,” he said, adding that there were chemistry issues and teamwork issues.
“My primary goal for this season was to right the ship,” he said. “We talked about being committed, about being disciplined and working hard.”
The team started practicing three nights a week instead of two, which DePalma says is thanks to the parents club, which put forth the money to pay for the third night at the Ocean Ice Palace on Chambersbridge Road in Brick.
The players have bought in.
"The players have been told that if they miss the bus, they miss practice, and if they miss practice, they can’t play," DePalma said.
“Thankfully we haven’t had to enforce that,” DePalma said. The only times players have missed practice is when they’ve been ill or been injured, he said.
“Their work ethic has been excellent,” he said.
The discipline in the games has improved dramatically as well. In the 2010-2011 season, the team had numerous game-misconduct penalties, where a player is ejected from the game.
“This year we’ve had no game misconducts,” DePalma said. “We have three games where we’ve had no penalties at all.”
“He (DePalma) won’t accept a bad penalty,” said Colin Freer, a senior forward and the team’s captain.
Ryan O’Rourke, a senior defenseman and one of the assistant captains, said DePalma has created a different mindset for the team this year.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere,” O’Rourke said. “Everybody’s committed, everyone is working hard.”
“There’s more teamwork now,” said senior forward Connor Bokop, the other assistant captain. “We’re sticking together through thick and thin now.”
Pasta meetings before games have helped. But the players also have put in a good deal of time helping DePalma with the challenger hockey program he runs at Ocean Ice Palace.
“They get up and come here on Sunday mornings without me having to remind them,” DePalma said. And the players all worked a charity event at Avon Pond, an outdoor arena in Avon-by-the-Sea, that raised $3,100 for that special needs hockey program.
The closeness that has resulted has helped the team overcome obstacles and put up victories that were out of reach last year – including the game that decided the Shore Conference Division D race.
Point Boro trailed St. Rose, 3-1, but rallied to tie the game and clinch the title.
“They play with confidence in a way they never did before,” DePalma said.
Bokop said the team is closer now and the results have brought them recognition around school.
“When we beat Lakeland, it was definitely talked about around school,” he said.
“Even if we hadn’t won, I would feel like this year has been a success,” DePalma said, because of the change he’s seen in the team and the players individually. “They’re a good bunch of kids.”