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Picard’s hat trick sends The Hill School past Lawrenceville

POTTSTOWN >> The Hill School’s Aidan Coll planted a Lawrenceville player in the boards. A fierce rivalry that took root in mid-20th century showed the Blues blossoming on this night.

A penalty was called on Coll and the home ice Hill crowd expressed disapproval. But with 1:31 left in the penalty, they were roaring ecstatically as Brandon Picard broke away for a short-handed goal with 4:35 remaining in the second period.

Hill School defenseman Andrew Troy cranks a slap shot from the point during the first period Wednesday. (Kevin Hoffman - The Mercury)

Hill School defenseman Andrew Troy cranks a slap shot from the point during the first period Wednesday. (Kevin Hoffman – The Mercury)

It gave the Blues a 3-1 lead, but no lead is safe in this kind of rivalry, and sure enough Lawrenceville (N.J.) tied it with two goals in a span of 1:25 late in the third period. But not long after Lawrenceville knotted the score with 3:47 left in regulation, it was time for Picard, a precocious rookie in this rivalry, to pack the visitors in ice.

With defenseman Trent Thomas making a good play and feeding the puck ahead, Picard once again skillfully weaved to a breakaway goal, giving him a hat trick and the game-winner with 2:02 remaining as Hill School hung on for a 4-3 victory Wednesday night — extra meaningful given the rich history between the schools.

“The fans were amazing and really helped us come back in the end,” Picard said.

Said Blues senior goalie Jake Cerullo of Chester Springs, who made some terrific saves throughout and whose brother Vail played before him at Hill School, “It doesn’t get any better than that. Beating L-ville on our home rink is just unreal.”

Third-year Hill School head coach Chris Bala, a former NHL player and class president at Hill School, savored the sweetness of the victory.

“We talked about forming an identity for our group. It’s early in our year, and every team aspires to be resilient,” Bala said as his team improved to 4-0-0. “We found a way. When it’s amplified in a game like tonight, this is one of those games that will stick in their minds.

“And I’m really happy for our Six-Formers. This group that has been here four years has four home wins against Lawrenceville.”

Hill School’s Brandon Picard scores on a breakaway goal to put the Blues up 3-1 in the second period. (Kevin Hoffman - The Mercury)

Hill School’s Brandon Picard scores on a breakaway goal to put the Blues up 3-1 in the second period. (Kevin Hoffman – The Mercury)

The Hill School and Lawrenceville boys hockey teams have been playing each other since World War II. The 1941-42 season marked the first matchup. The rivalry has continued uninterrupted since 1953-54, usually consisting of a home-and-away series each year. Wednesday’s meeting was the 145th between the schools in boys hockey, with Lawrenceville leading the remarkably close series 67-65, and there have been 13 ties.

Back in the ‘50s, the Blues would bus 900 miles in a season on trips to borrowed ice. The home rink they have now is more than suitable. A sparkling on-campus, multi-million dollar facility, Hall/Eccleston Arena, was constructed in 2006 and has a seating capacity of 500.

Hill School goalie Jake Cerullo makes a kick save during first period action. (Kevin Hoffman - The Mercury)

Hill School goalie Jake Cerullo makes a kick save during first period action. (Kevin Hoffman – The Mercury)

It was mostly filled Wednesday night. The girls teams for both schools met in the opening game for the first time since 2006-07. Hill School girls hockey is a far younger program than the boys edition; it began in 2001 and, led by coach Ari Baum, an excellent recruiter, has made significant progress. Assistant girls coach Maggie Joyce and her resume as a top-notch former player — she was once invited to an Olympic camp — has also played a key role.

Hill School and Lawrenceville are members of the New England Prep School Ice Hockey Association. Due to New England scholastic playoff regulations, New England-area schools usually won’t play non-league games, but membership affords Lawrenceville and Hill School the ability to play each other as part of their very competitive scheduling mindsets. Both are independents within the NEPSIHA.

“We established a consistent relationship in the ‘50s, and it’s just grown,” says Hill School boys assistant coach Nate Yinger, Hill School Class of ’05. “It’s a natural rivalry between the schools, two very comparable programs 70 miles apart.”

Hill School’s Marissa Letizio, right looks to skate past Lawrenceville’s Sierra Watkins Wednesday afternoon. (Kevin Hoffman - The Mercury)

Hill School’s Marissa Letizio, right looks to skate past Lawrenceville’s Sierra Watkins Wednesday afternoon. (Kevin Hoffman – The Mercury)

The Blues compete against some of the top teams from the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions, with its varsity usually playing 30-plus games a season, and well over half coming against teams from New England. Some teams they run into feature numerous Division I recruits. The Lady Blues, who lost to Lawrenceville 5-0 Wednesday, likewise face a challenging schedule, including opponents from New England and the Women’s Ice Hockey League of the Mid-Atlantic.

Bala is a recruiting magnet with his impressive hockey background. The Phoenixville native, a Hill School standout and Sixth Form president in 1996-97, also excelled on the ice for Harvard and was a second-round pick of the Ottawa Senators in the 1998 NHL draft. He made his pro debut in 2001-02 and was selected as an American Hockey League all-star as a rookie (he also earned a call-up from the Senators that season). His pro career lasted through 2006-07, spending his final two years with the Reading Royals of the East Coast Hockey League.

Hill School’s Nicole Guidi, right and Lawrenceville’s Emma Polaski skate into the corner for the loose puck. (Kevin Hoffman - The Mercury)

Hill School’s Nicole Guidi, right and Lawrenceville’s Emma Polaski skate into the corner for the loose puck. (Kevin Hoffman – The Mercury)

Numerous Hill graduates have played in college and beyond. Max Novak, a New Jersey native and Hill graduate in 2010, starred at Division I Union and scored the winning goal in the 2014 national title game against the University of Minnesota at the Wells Fargo Center.

Junior centerman Picard came from ultimate hockey country — Montreal. Bala recruited him while Picard played for the Junior Philadelphia Flyers. As noted by Picard and sophomore winger David Hill (Glen Mills), who scored Hill’s first goal Wednesday, they came to Hill School largely because Bala’s excellence as a former player translates well as a coach.

Winger Max Lesnikov is from Moscow. Four others are from Canada. In all, 13 on the boys team came from out of state. On the girls side, 11 are from out of state.

“Boarding school and youth hockey and hockey in general have always gone hand-in-hand,” Bala said, “and so there will always be a draw for young players to perceive avenues they think can get them to the next level. To be honest, working at a school like this, it’s easy, because why wouldn’t a kid want to come to the Hill School?”

And the rivalry with Lawrenceville is a huge part of the Hill School hockey experience.

“Not every kid gets to be a part of something so special,” Yinger points out. “Our kids take a lot of pride in it.”

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