Hillsborough High School enjoyed a successful 2017-18 ice hockey season.
The Raiders reached the NJSIAA Public A tournament, the program’s first state tournament appearance in five years.
Even though they lost to Monroe Township High School, 6-3, in the Public A round of 16, the Raiders were satisfied with their turnaround.
Now, in 2018-19, they expect to build on that encouraging campaign.
Hillsborough has 15 varsity players back from 2017-18.
The Raiders opened their season with a victory, 3-2, at Watchung Hills Regional High School on Nov. 30.
“I expect a successful year and another step forward, to build off what we did last year,” said Hillsborough coach Chris Tommins. “I have high expectations for the kids and they have high expectations for themselves.”
Hillsborough scored a lot last year and its top offensive duo, juniors Jude Kurtas and Jason Wolff, are back together on the first line. Kurtas recorded 31 goals and 32 assists last winter. Wolff scored 25 goals.
“Jude has very good hands. He can stick handle well. He also knows the game better than anyone I’ve seen at the high school level,” Tommins said. “Wolff gets to the dirty areas of the ice in front. He uses his speed to get his goals. Together they get a lot of breakaways and two on ones. It looks like you’re watching NHL guys when they play together.”
Another top line player from last year, junior Lleyton Soares, is anchoring the second line this winter. Soares posted 52 points in 2017-18. He is playing on the second line because Tommins wanted to spread Hillsborough’s firepower across the lineup.
Two talented but less experienced players, Mike LoRicco and Brock Forrest, have joined Soares on the second line.
LoRicco is a skilled player who struggled with injuries last year. Now that he’s healthy, Tommins thinks he can amass between 25 and 35 points.
Forrest is a sophomore who grew four inches in the offseason. He also increased the level of his skills “from a five to a nine,” Tommins said.
The coach expects his second line to be as prolific as his top group.
“They are a 1A second line,” Tommins said. “I’m as comfortable with them on the ice.”
Hillsborough’s issue last year was defense. But the Raiders are at least deeper and more experienced on defense this year.
The top defensive pairing is Matt Palmer and Jack Spitzer, who played together last winter for the first time. Spitzer was a converted forward who needed time to learn a defensive mindset. But this year, they have a much better understanding of their roles and how to play together.
“They have very good chemistry. They are my two defensemen that I rely on,” Tommins said. “Jack started off looking like a forward playing defense. By the end he looked like a natural defenseman, getting the puck up to our forwards.”
Hillsborough also has a second defensive pairing that Tommins is excited about. Robert Renner is 6-1, 210-pound bruiser. Seamus Parauda is a converted forward with a mind for the game, passing instincts and speed.
“Seamus stepped up to play defense this year because we were light on that end,” Tommins said. “He has come around over the last month, learning from Rob.”
Hillsborough’s new starter in goal, freshman Jason LoRicco, is also improving quickly. After allowing two early goals versus Watchung Hills, Loricco settled down and dominated, saving 28 of 30 shots.
“He controlled second shots and rebounds and made some big saves,” Tommins said.
Hillsborough looks like a well rounded team, one capable of allowing fewer goals and advancing deeper in the state tournament in 2018-19.
“Public A is very strong, so we’ll see some tough teams,” Tommins said. “But we have a good core back there. I expect us to compete with the teams we’ll be playing.”