RUMSON – A team under the direction of a first-year head coach and without the services of a single senior on the defensive side of the puck is not one expected to be playing for a Shore Conference championship.
This season would have provided a great opportunity for a young core to learn the system being implemented by their new bench boss, and to build an identity for the program.
Rumson-Fair Haven had different ideas, and they more than proved that they are ready to win now; capturing the Shore Conference’s Handchen Cup after defeating Middletown South, 9-3, at Jersey Shore Arena back on Feb. 20.
RFH, which is under the direction of first-year head coach Eric Zullo, managed to only win five games during the 2017-18 season before finishing with a .500 record and a Handchen Cup victory as a nine-seed just last season.
In 2019-20, the Bulldogs were primed to be competitive, but nobody, save for anyone in an RFH uniform, expected them to be this good – this fast.
“This year I knew we had a strong contingency up front,” Zullo said. “We have a great goaltender and a lockdown defensive core that put us in a spot to be good now.”
The Bulldogs’ roll this season culminated in the program winning their first Shore title since they captured the Dowd Cup back in 2012.
Rumson, led by a defensive unit that only surrendered 30 scores across 22 contests this season, will return every single skater to the blueline. Ronan Hickey, a junior netminder who produced a .930 save percentage, will also return to the crease.
But the Handchen Cup championship game wrote a new narrative. RFH supplied the offense, exploding for a season-high nine goals in a game they put out of reach early.
“We have been snake-bitten in terms of scoring goals,” Zullo said after RFH’s Handchen Cup victory. “When we dominate the offensive zone, we know that the chances will come. All we need to do is start to bury them.”
Bury their chances they did, as that night, Rumson-Fair Haven had six different players find the back of the net. Sam Catalano led the way with three goals and Brett Pritchard scored twice.
RFH scored early and often; building a 4-0 lead just 9:49 into the first period behind a barrage from Max Nicholson, Catalano, Rowan Goldin and Jack Whitelaw.
“We have no superstars on this team and everyone just plays for each other,” Catalano said. “We play as a team every time we step out on the ice.”
Catalano was able to cap off his hat trick in the second period, surrounding a goal scored by Charlie Tallman. Pritchard lit the lamp twice in the final period to cap the scoring.
When the final buzzer sounded, all the hard work the Bulldogs put in throughout the opening months of the season were all worth the effort. The only thing left to do was celebrate.
“Throughout the day it was just nervous waiting,” Zullo said. “They have been ready for this moment since the beginning of the season.”
The celebration was eight years in the making, and this group is more than accepting of being the second team in school history to add a trophy to the school hallways.
“Rumson has only done this one other time – ever,” Whitelaw said. “We came out hot, strived for a win and didn’t stop – this is a great feeling.”
“It’s awesome,” Goldin said. “Words can’t describe it honestly.”
Rumson-Fair Haven did not cake-walk their way to a 16-3-3 record this season. The Bulldogs faced stiff Shore Conference competition against teams like Saint John Vianney, Manasquan/Point Pleasant Beach, Middletown North and Jackson Liberty/Point Pleasant Boro; all of whom qualified for the NJSIAA state tournament. They also played to a draw with a Gordon Conference opponent in St. Peter’s Prep.
For Zullo and the Bulldogs, all the hard work that is needed to get through the season was well worth it, and the rewards help motivate what is shaping into a powerhouse program in the Shore Conference to make trips to the finals a regular occurrence.
“There were little building blocks throughout the season and they all led to this moment,” Zullo said. “They have climbed all the steps and got to the top and were ready to get their championship.
“We are trying to build something here where getting the top seed and playing deep into the postseason is more common,” Zullo added.
Rumson-Fair Haven also earned a high seed in the NJSIAA Public C state bracket, receiving the fourth seed and home ice throughout the non-neutral site rounds. While RFH saw their run come to a close to fifth-seeded Manasquan in the quarterfinals, their remarkable campaign has placed them on the map to be a team to beat in 2020-21.
“We know that we are going to get our opponent’s best effort every night when you are winning,” Zullo said. “We embrace that. We want to become the team that everyone wants to beat, and when you get that kind of competition it is only going to make you better.”
“Early on nobody really thought we would be that good,” Whitelaw said. “We took the top seed and won the Shore so we have high confidence.”
The start of next season is still over eight months away, but one thing is for certain heading into next season. There’s a lot of confidence that the Bulldogs will be a threat on the ice to anyone willing to challenge them.