RED BANK - Scorn transformed into jubilation Saturday night as the Marlboro Mustangs traded in their dunce caps for a crown, trampling over the Manasquan Warriors with a 4-1 victory in the Shore Conference's Dowd Cup Final at Red Bank Armory. The championship marks Marlboro ice hockey's first, acheived in only their third year as a program.
Junior Michael Dorfschneider scored two goals for the Mustangs, including the game-winner, and senior Geoff Liter posted a three point night with a goal and two assists.
Connor Grogan scored the lone goal for Manasquan.
"All year we set out to win this game," said Dorfschneider. "Not any other games than this one, and it feels great to finally finish our goal and win the Dowd Cup."
Cast into the basement "D" division when the Shore Conference realigned prior to the 2010-2011 season, the Mustangs (No. 1, 21-1-2) have since flourished in defiance. Marlboro systematically dismantled every divisional opponent they faced in regular season play, and clinched their division with a perfect 10-0 record. They've played David in defeating or tying supposed Goliaths from higher divisions. Only once have they fallen, in a Dec. 18 contest against Rumson Fair-Haven in which they were missing a substantial chunk of their roster.
The Warriors (No. 2, 15-5-2) went 8-2 in divisional play to take the Shore Conference's "C" title. Firing on all cylinders thanks to a high-powered offense fueled by Shore Conference scoring champion Grogan, who as a sophomore became Manasquan's all-time leading scorer in their 2-1 victory over Rumson Fair-Haven in the Dowd Cup semifinals, Manasquan hadn't lost a game since Jan. 10. They've posted 10 or more goals six times over the course of their season.
Based on the respective offensive capabilities of these two teams and the outcome of their last meeting, a Dec. 11 matchup in which Marlboro emerged the victor by a score of 7-5, fans at the Armory may have been expecting a high-scoring affair. They didn't get one, as both teams came up scoreless at the end of the first period.
Marlboro senior Jonathan Weinstein admitted his team was a bit nervous in the first.
"It was obvious. We came out and gave up a lot of odd-man rushes," said Weinstein.
The Mustangs also failed to convert on a 5-on-3 power play opportunity five minutes into the game as Grogan and Tyler Place were called for subsequent minor penalties.
All 16 of Marlboro's first period shots were turned away by Manasquan's freshman goalie Bronson Ligouri, with his saves often followed by a resounding "Bronson!" from the Manasquan faithful, many of whom arrived wearing their school's royal blue jerseys or varsity jackets.
"[Manasquan] had hundreds of fans it felt like," said Dorfschneider. "They were everywhere."
The Warrior crowd went wild at 11:49 of the second as Grogan skated in and whipped a blistering wrister into the upper right corner of the Marlboro net to give Manasquan a 1-0 advantage. He was assisted by Kyle Wainwright and Will Conte.
"He has a good shot, it just hit my glove and went in," said freshman goalie Alan Feld, who went on to stop 29 of 30 Manasquan shots on the evening.
But Grogan's goal proved to only shake the Marlboro beehive, igniting the rage Mustangs coach Wayne Anderson has found critical to his team's success.
"It seems like when someone scores on us, we get pissed and we go ahead and start playing our game," said Anderson.
Perhaps out of that anger, Dorfschneider violently slashed James Margetis' stick to the ice at 10:19 of the second to put the Warriors on the power play.
Manasquan controlled the puck in the Mustangs zone and got off two shots, but a clearing effort from Mustangs senior defenseman Robert Lindenbaum got past Wainwright at the point and was chipped ahead by sophomore Steve Sabatini, who stickhandled into the Warriors zone and lobbed a pass to Liter, who controlled it and dangled past a sprawled Ligouri to tie the game 1-1 at 8:52 of the second.
"We got on the penalty kill and Geoff Liter turned to Sabatini and said 'we need a goal' and sure enough they went out and they got a goal shorthanded and that just started the whole momentum," said Weinstein.
Less than a minute later, Weinstein pushed Place off the puck as he entered the Marlboro zone and Troy Kraft got a pass off to Liter who skated through traffic in the neutral zone and dropped the puck to Dorfschneider, who cut around the bottom of the left circle and jammed the puck through Ligouri's five hole to put the Mustangs up 2-1.
"I was just following the play trying to get in a good position to score," said Dorfschneider. "I got the puck to the net. The first shot was saved by the goalie, the second one I just squeezed it in and it squeezed through, luckily."
As the ice began to tilt in Marlboro's favor, young Manasquan skittered into frenzied alarm.
"Once we got scored on we just fell back and kind of panicked a little bit," said Manasquan coach Jim Fagan. "They're an older team, they have a lot of seniors. We're a young team, mostly freshmen, sophomores are our big players. So you kind of saw that maturity. When they fell down, they just got angry. When we fell down we got almost panicky."
Manasquan worked the puck around the ice but couldn't manage any shots on net before the Mustangs struck again at 4:19 of the second.
Senior Reid Lacognata carried the puck into the Warriors zone and dished it off to freshman Richard Franco, who had a shot blocked by sophomore defenseman Dylan McMenamin. The puck bounced into the corner where Franco banked the puck to Liter, who was waiting behind the net. Franco went to the crease as Liter set him up with a perfect pass ,which he backhanded through Ligouri to make it 3-1 Marlboro.
"Unfortunately it took a little bit of time to get it going, but once we did, it seemed like [Manasquan] stayed back a little bit more and that gave us more room to work," said Anderson.
Dorfschneider said Marlboro's plan for the third was simple.
"Not to play like we did in the first period, because we know that wasn't good enough, and to play the second half of the third, and that's what we did. We put one more in, played defense and 4-1, that's it."
With 8:36 to go in the game, Dorfschneider took a pass from Kraft and wristed a shot from the right circle to give the Mustangs a 4-1 lead.
"I came down and used the defenders as my screen and it was just a nice shot to the corner and the goalie couldn't save it," said Dorfschneider.
Cup on the line, Marlboro clamped down on defense and played out the remainder of the clock. When the final buzzer sounded, the Mustangs tossed their gloves, sticks and helmets into the air in celebration. They mobbed Feld and exchanged hugs with each other before lining up to shake hands with the Warriors.
Then they took a team picture, just like the one coach Anderson showed them before the game to get them fired up. Anderson, who has won three cups coaching other teams, brought in a picture of his 2002 Handchen Cup-winning Red Bank Catholic team.
"I said the trophy was a piece of wood with some metal on it, the picture is the memories. So that's what you want. You want the memories. You're not going out there for a trophy, you're going out there for the memories," said Anderson.
"At 90 years old, sitting in a wheelchair somewhere, that's what they're going to remember."
In past years there has been an actual cup presented by former New Jersey Devil and Brick High School standout Jim Dowd, who the award is named after, but this year Dowd was away on coaching assignment for the Red Bank Generals traveling hockey club, so the Mustangs skated around with a plaque.
The Dowd Cup is a tournament that pits the top eight teams in the Shore Conference's "C" and "D" divisions against each other, and the Handchen Cup is fought for among the top eight "A" and "B" division teams. Red Bank Catholic won this year's Handchen Cup.
Though Manasquan is a "C" division team, and the Mustangs are a "D" division team, Marlboro's Dowd Cup victory proves the Shore Conference's ranking system is not a perfect one.
"The names aren't really fair," said Fagan. "It's not really a 'C' and a 'D', because there's tremendous teams. Both our teams beat teams in the 'B'. It's all based on school size, not on talent. So to call them a 'D' team isn't fair. To call us a 'C' team isn't really fair."
Though it's clear the Mustang mission this year was and still is to come out hard and buck the naysayers, Dorfschneider acknowledged how lofty their goal seemed in early December.
"If I would have gone to any one of our teammates the first day of tryouts and said 'we're going to win the Dowd Cup', they'd probably just laugh at me, so it feels great to prove everyone wrong and come out here and beat Manasquan."
To Anderson, the goal was always within reach, acheived through hard work in practice learning the ins and outs of his playbook.
"We play a system, we stick to the system. We get down, we don't get nervous or start changing what we do. We do what we do because we do it well and we can change some things if teams address us. We have multiple power plays, we have multiple breakouts. These kids are smart hockey players and they're talented hockey players, and when you have that combination, you can do a lot with them."
The show doesn't stop here for the Mustangs, though. They begin play in the NJSIAA Public A tournament Tuesday and -- surprise, surprise -- they've been underestimated again.
"We thought we should be (seeded) 10, 11, possibly at worst 12. We got 18, we're playing the 14 seed," said Anderson.
"We need to go out there and get the respect that's due us, because you know what? A 21-2 team getting the 18 seed in the state A tournament is an atrocity. So we have to go out and prove that we don't belong there, and I think we will."
Weinstein thinks the taste of tournament success the Mustangs got in winning the Dowd Cup will help them on the road ahead.
"Now that we know what it's like to win here, we have our eyes set on states and we're going to try and win the championship. We're going to do everything that we can," said Weinstein.
Anderson certainly sees storybook potential in his team.
"I think every game we win just puts another feather in our cap and says you're wrong. We're touted as the Cinderella team by a couple places out there. We'll see what happens. If the shoe's going to fit and Prince Charming wants to show up, we'll take it."
The no. 18 Mustangs continue their quest for comeuppance Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. when they face off against no. 15 Hackensack at Ice House in Hackensack.