Delbarton Hockey: Creating a New Jersey Legacy

by Jashvina Shah

In the 2009 New Jersey High School Hockey State Tournament semifinals, Delbarton — flush with future Tigers Tommy Davis, Mike Ambrosia and Colton Phinney — trailed Bergen Catholic 3-0. And Delbarton was getting out played.

Just before the final period, Delbarton’s coaching staff asked the players to believe in each other and fight for one more game as a team.

James Sirigotis scored first for the Green Wave in the third, en route to a 5-3 Delbarton victory. They came back in the finals and took down Christian Brothers Academy for their second state championship in a row.

“Success breed success at Delbarton, and they take a lot of pride in it,” Shatel said. “As a coach, that makes my job a little bit easier because they know what it takes to win from prior seasons and they teach our younger boys what it takes.”

The game embodied a journey a decade in the making, which created a  Green Wave program that swept the state for six-straight private school titles.

“They face a lot of adversity and pressure throughout the year, and I think that helps motivate them to want to be good,” Shatel said. “They don’t want to be the team that doesn’t achieve success.”

Those teams sparked a 78 game unbeaten streak against New Jersey teams that lasted into the 2013-14 season. In the 79th game, Delbarton faced Bergen Catholic — the same team the Green Wave beat in 2009. The Green Wave were winning, but failed to hold the lead — stopping the streak at 78 games.

Delbarton’s championship streak also came to an end, as the Green Wave fell to Morristown-Beard in the 2014 semifinals.

“When 15, 16 , 17 year old boys hear that and they know about streaks, that’s added pressure,” Shatel said. “I admire our kids on how they deal with it. We don’t try to talk about streaks, we don’t try to talk about championships, we try to focus on getting better day to day.”

But Davis, Phinney and Ambrosia played on teams that raised multiple Green Wave championship banners during their time at Delbarton.

“We just raised the bar, hopefully, especially [for] what is to be expected from a Delbarton hockey team,” Davis said.

“The legacy we left behind was just that we did it, we won, but we did it with class and a lot of respect.

“I hope that’s what we’re remembered for.”

Academic and Athletic Development 

Thirteen years ago, Bruce Shatel inherited Delbarton hockey. He had just finished a three-year stint as an assistant with the Green Wave, his second since 1994.

During his first seven coaching years, Shatel spent one season away from Delbarton when he took an assistant job with Seton Hall Prep. But he returned to the Green Wave in 1989-99, and became the head coach in the 2001-02 season when he was 30 years old.

As a coach, Shatel focuses on how to motivate his players.

“I want to know what makes them tick,” Shatel said.

“I think I’ve gotten better with learning who responds to what, but at the same time you’ve got to give your players a voice and you’ve got to listen to them.”

Shatel’s focus on his players helped several of his players reach Division I hockey, including Kenny Agostino, Matt Killian, Charles Orzetti. The trio played and won with Princeton’s Davis, Phinney and Ambrosia.

“I had boys playing for me in 2002 that if they were playing for me in 2010 would be going to any college in the country,” Shatel said.

Now, Shatel has several former players at the Division I level. Some are entering their first seasons, including Tommy Muratore, Drew Melanson and Delbarton all-time leading scorer John Baiocco. Chad Otterman is committed to Cornell, and Josh Melnick is committed to Princeton.

“It’s been a process that evolved over 13 years, and we’re now in a position where the guys who have an opportunity to go on and play in the next [level],” Shatel said. “[They] seem to be contributing and doing very well for themselves and hopefully it’l help us continue to place players.”

Shatel scheduled the Green Wave into tournaments and Yale and Massachusetts to expose his players. He also used his relationships with recruiters to send the Delbarton graduates to college hockey.

“He was just good at marketing,” Davis said.

“A lot of coaches won’t really work for their kids sometimes, they don’t really care. He really cared about us so it was nice.”

The care from the coaching staff is why Ambrosia and other Green Wave members keep in contact with Shatel.

“I think it goes back to his genuine interest in his players and our development both on and off the ice,” Ambrosia said. “He does everything he can to help his players and I think that’s why we, he got the most out of all of his players and we all keep in touch with them and he’s an awesome guy.”

Off the ice, the Green Wave varsity hockey players faced a demanding academic schedule that players said mimicked the demand at Princeton.

Ambrosia said a player schedule consisted of a day of classes and then a trip to the rink for practice, which is 15 minutes away from the school.

“It’s kind of like that all year round where there were times you’d be overwhelmed with work but also have practice everyday,” Phinney said. “That’s what made you be ready for college so I was pretty thankful for that in the end.”

That’s the environment Shatel has created at Delbarton through the championships, wins and streaks.

“I think there are a lot of crazy hockey parents out there they feel they have to ship their son away at the age of 15 and 16 years old,” Shatel said. “They believe that more is better and they have to play all year long.

“That’s not what we promote at Delbarton. We like our guys to play multiple sports, we like them to concentrate on their grades.”

Delbarton hockey practices, which last an hour and 15 minutes in season, features five lines and eight defensemen. During in-season off days, the team works on strength and conditioning.

“When you’re in that kind of environment 24/7 for four months, you have to get better. If you’re not getting better you’re either not working hard or we’re not doing our job as a coaching staff,” Shatel said.

“Getting better at hockey hockey, it’s a big component but it’s not the only one.”

Building A Delbarton Dynasty

Delbarton’s rise started around eight years ago, when the Green Wave knocked off then-undefeated Seton Hall Prep in the 2006 state finals.

“At first, nobody gave us respect,” Davis said. “I was lucky, I kind of came in right when the program was becoming a national power and now it’s off the charts. My freshman, year nobody really knew us.”

After falling in the 2007 semifinals, the Green Wave returned, fielding a team with Agostino, Ambrosia, Phinney and Davis. In the finals, Delbarton took down St. Augestine Prep 5-1, winning their first of six-straight.

Around that time, the Green Wave started playing out-of-state schools. Delbarton faced Hotchkiss, Catholic Memorial, Salisbury and Culver Academy. And Delbarton won.

“Those teams were very well respected in terms of their hockey programs,” Shatel said. “For a New Jersey school to win those games, it was unheard of.”

Now those teams appear regularly on Delbarton’s schedule. The Green Wave played Catholic Memorial at Yankee Stadium last season, and the pair will play again this year.

“It grabbed the attention of the college guys and I think it grabbed the attention of a lot of local players, young players in the area,” Shatel said.

“It made them want to aspire to come to Delbarton. And we’ve been very fortunate to attract high-level kids who are very good in the classroom and hopefully we can continue this momentum.”

Shatel’s program attracted players like John Baiocco, Josh Melnick and Alex Hagerty – who surpassed the century mark in school scoring.  Baiocco’s 184 points leads the program, and  Melnick recorded 130 points in 87 games in a Green Wave jersey. Agostino, who made his NHL debut last season, netted 50 goals at Delbarton and holds the record for points per game.

“That was the first time in my life I played hockey where everybody was on the same page, where working towards the same goal, everybody did their job,” Davis said.

A New Jersey Legacy

For the trio of Ambrosia, Davis and Phinney, Delbarton wasn’t only an option to join a rising team. It was a chance to spend high school in New Jersey.

The three have spent their entire lives in New Jersey, save a couple years of junior hockey. Phinney and Davis both spent a season in different states, while Ambrosia spent two in Youngstown, Ohio.

“I just wanted the regular high school experience and I wanted to live at home and be with my family for four years,” Davis said.

“I hope we showed younger kids you can stay in Jersey and succeed in hockey.”

While Delbarton’s record streaks fell in the 2013-14 season, Shatel earned his 300th win in February and led the Green Wave to a 20-5-3 record.

“I understand that maybe people have to go away because a product like Delbarton isn’t offered to them at maybe their public school or another high school in the area,” Shatel said.

“But it’s a proven fact that we can develop hockey players and good hockey players in our venue.”

Shatel, along with his 2001-02 team, earned an induction into the New Jersey Hockey Hall of Fame.

“Having successful teams in New Jersey that prove they can move players on to where they want to go, wherever that may be, it helps kids stay in the state and it keeps a high level of high school hockey in the state,” Ambrosia said.

“That’s tremendous for hockey in general and specifically in New Jersey.”

Editor’s note: At the time this article was published, Josh Melnick was still committed to Princeton

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