MIDDLETOWN — In lieu of caps, the Middletown South student section rained shoes down upon the ice on Friday night in celebration of a hat trick effort by Eagles’ defenseman Travis Yawger.
The senior blueliner’s three-goal night helped third-seeded Middletown South to an 8-1 victory over No. 18 seeded Jackson Liberty in the second round of the NJSIAA Public Tournament at Middletown Ice World.
And what’s more, the triumph came with the Eagles’ top offensive player — Gavin Gulash — out of action.
“That’s sort of been the M.O. all year for our team. Guys go down with an injury or illness, which is natural, and instead of everyone dropping their shoulders, hanging their heads and saying ‘woe is us,’ somebody else steps up and picks the team,” Middletown South coach Tony Nemati, in his third season as coach, said. “Tonight Travis was the one who rose to the occasion.”
Yawger snapped a 1-1 tie early in the second period when he accepted a pass at the point from Ryan D’Emilia and put a slap shot through traffic that found its way past Jackson Liberty netminder Brendan Sheerin (33 saves) for his fifth of the season.
Chris Falzone followed with his second of the year off a Ryan Lambert helper, before Yawger extended the Eagles’ advantage to 4-1 when Mike Racioppi whipped a pass across the crease to the senior, who chipped home a power-play goal at 5:03 of the middle frame.
Later in the second, Racioppi logged another helper on Lambert’s 17th of the year before Yawger completed his hat trick as the blue liner moved down the slot on the power-play, collected a rebound down low off a D’Emilia shot and banked in his seventh of the season off the pads of Sheerin with 2:39 remaining in the period.
“Whenever you score a hat trick, it’s always a great feeling,” Yawger said of his first three-goal game of the year. “It doesn’t happen that often for me. But the credit has to go to my teammates. They set me up perfectly on all three of my goals. I have to give them all the credit. I didn’t really do too much, just put the puck on net and got lucky. I owe it to them.”
With 16 seconds remaining in the middle frame, D’Emilia closed out a four-point night with his team-leading 18th goal of the season off a Bobby Matthews assist before Nick Lioudakis rounded out the Eagles’ scoring with his 16th at 7:16 of the third period leading to the 8-1 final.
Dan Berkowitz started the scoring for Middletown with his seventh of the year at 10:38 of the first period but Jackson Liberty made it a 1-1 game at the first intermission –- despite the Eagles’ out-shooting the Lions 19-4 after one –- when freshman centerman Zach D’Andrea slipped a pass into the slot for sophomore Joe Granza to ladle home on the backhand.
Middletown South improves to 18-4-1 this season and will prepare for sixth-seeded Lakeland in the quarterfinals on Monday at 7:30 p.m. Jackson Liberty finishes its season at 11-10-3.
D’Andrea and Granza are two rising stars at the heart of a youthful core of skaters that will return to Jackson Liberty next season and though this 2016-17 campaign may not have ended in the fashion the Lions hoped for, coach Kyle Weise admitted he is excited for what the future holds.
“It’s tough to think about it right now, but it goes without saying that the talent we have here is pretty young,” Weise said. “We’re losing a few guys, and their absence is certainly going to hurt, but we have a starting goaltender coming back. We have three sophomores and a freshman that were among our leading scorers this year.
They’re making strides and getting better each day. So yes, this hurts right now, but the future is bright for us.”