BAYONNE — It just takes one. One time to hoist the trophy to make all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile.
Down nine players to injury or illness, the odds were certainly stacked against Clifton, which entered the Bayonne Holiday Tournament finale with just 10 skaters and a goalie in the lineup. But it isn’t the number of players on the bench, it’s the size of their hearts.
James Fusaro scored three goals and Peter Wilk delivered the game-winner with 13:15 remaining in regulation as a shorthanded but not shortsighted Clifton Mustangs team defeated the Bayonne Bees, 5-3, in the final of the Bayonne Holiday Tournament at Korpi Arena in Bayonne.
Deadlocked at 3-3, Wilk’s game-winning goal, assisted by Fusaro and Vin Petriella, capped the thrilling comeback as Clifton erased not one, but two deficits to storm back and defeat Bayonne, the defending champions.
“It’s giving it our all,” Wilk said. “Working hard in practice every day, getting on the ice, keeping our composure, using every one of our players on the bench… But you know what? We came through big and did everything we needed to do. It feels great! I can’t believe it.”
It had been a while for Clifton. No one on the roster had previously experienced hoisting hardware — no one in the maroon and gray had in a decade, in fact. You have to go all the way back to the 2008 Passaic County Tournament the last time Clifton was declared champions.
“Four years? We finally got one and it feels good,” Fusaro, who completed the hat trick on the power play with 9:37 on the clock in the second period, said. “Just kept working and started rolling.”
Clifton, the 2001 NJSIAA State Champion, erased deficits of 1-0 and 3-2 before somehow pulling away late with three unanswered goals despite dressing 11 players to Bayonne’s 17. Fusaro, Wilk and Petriella joined Mike Porter, Peter Fila, Dylan Spies, Selen Fruit, Aaron Moses, Nick Plaskon and Sean Sandberg in absorbing as much ice time as they could handle while goaltender Jaden Fortuna put up a wall in between the pipes.
“It felt good to be picked back up,” Fortuna, who registered 31 saves, said. “Always feels when your teammates have your back. This is the first tournament we’ve won in the four years I’ve been here. Feels pretty good.”
“We don’t have a backup goalie so if something happened to Jaden I don’t know what we would’ve done,” Clifton head coach Tom Danko said. “I think we have a lot of guys who have a lot of grit. Down nine players? Sometimes it hasn’t been there on this team but yesterday and tonight it’s been there and it shows. This team has a lot grit.”
But it was Bayonne which struck first, just 1:49 into the game when Billy Parlsey beat Fortuna to give the Bees a 1-0 lead. Fusaro tied it at one 1:18 later before scoring a fabulous goal with 16.4 seconds left in the first period to give Clifton a brief 2-1 lead.
“I saw we had a little time left. I knew if we could get one there we could head into the next period strong,” Fusaro said. “When we were down, I knew I had to get a goal to get the team going. Anything to get the team going.”
“We always like to keep the mentality that it’s 0-0,” Wilk said. “We want to be aggressive the whole game.”
Fusaro’s second of the game seemingly put Clifton in the driver’s seat, but that all changed in a span of 16 seconds in the second period.
Parsley finished a great individual effort to tie the game back up at 2-2, and on the ensuing faceoff Bayonne scored again and regained the lead when Stephon Taylor finished the play started by John Buckland.
“Johnny got the puck at the point. It came down to me at the halfwall, I walked toward the middle, picked my head up, saw his glove down and put it where he couldn’t get it,” Parsley said. “That was a huge goal. Two in 16 seconds! We got a lead and thought we were going to build off that but Clifton, give them credit, they really stayed in the game and really battled all game long.”
Despite being outnumbered, Clifton did battle back and Fusaro tied it back up at 3-3 less than two minutes later. Both teams skated into the second intermission deadlocked at three before Wilk delivered the game-winner 1:45 into the third. Petriella added an empty-net goal with 11.1 seconds to ice it for the Mustangs, which were without Chris Poplawski, Jason Finan, Patrick Biernat, Dev Purohit, Vlatsimil Ciberej, Boris Skalos, Joe Wiebe, Dylan Conte, Sebastian Skubisz and Kevin Gormley.
“A lot of plays that just bounced over our sticks. We just missed it,” longtime Bayonne coach Harvey Boehm, who has returned to the bench for the Bees for the first time since 2011-12, said. “We lagged behind on some of the plays Clifton buried on us. Then they really held on to the lead. Our kids seemed to have lost a step tonight but hats off to Clifton doing so well with just nine guys.”
Clifton defeated Woodbridge, 6-2, while Bayonne topped Fair Lawn, 5-2, to reach the tournament finale.
Woodbridge defeated Fair Lawn, 4-3, in the consolation game just prior to the final between Clifton and Bayonne.
“We had a couple of rough years,” Danko said. “We were used to winning. Then we weren’t winning. This one feels pretty great.”
Bayonne Tournament Champions
2002-Toms River North
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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