The Chatham Cougars won the NJSIAA Public B State Championship last season under the direction of first-year head coach, Frank Gilberti. (Photo/Prudential Center)
Last season ended magically for the Chatham Cougars varsity ice hockey team. Under the direction of their new head coach, Frank Gilberti, the team entered the NJSIAA state tournament as the fifth-seed, eventually being named the Public B State Champions.
The state title was the second for the Cougars in three years, and entering the 2013-14 season, the team is well aware that their success will have other teams working hard to hand them a loss.
“You can’t come out of left field after what we did last season and we understand that,” said Gilberti. “We understand that we’re going to get every team’s best. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing a 0-20 team, that 0-20 is going to give us their best effort on that night.”
“From the coaching perspective, that couldn’t make me any happier because it’s going to force our players to take that responsibility on to ourselves. We have to be mentally prepared to play this game, we have to be focused. It doesn’t make a difference who that opponent is.”
Chatham’s championship season might have ended the way every player dreams, but there was some learning to be done at the beginning. It was Gilberti’s first season as the head of the program following in the footsteps of long-time head coach Harvey Cohen.
We want to make sure our team is playing at a higher level than they were all of last season. We want to push the bar to the level of hockey that we are playing at, the speed of hockey that we’re playing … there is no question we want to improve every facet of our game because we’re never really good enough - Head Coach Frank Gilberti
Under Coach Cohen the team employed a more passive strategy, but coming in Gilberti changed the team’s identity to a more aggressive style. The shake-up led to early mistakes as the players were getting acclimated, it also resulted in a 1-4 record.
Chatham ended the regular season with a record of 15-6-3, proving that his new implementations were working and the athletes were buying into the system. This year, the players are more knowledgeable and experienced with what Gilberti is asking of them.
“I feel like everybody’s a little more comfortable now in their situation. When you first come in [the athletes are] questioning, ‘Does this person know what they’re doing,’ and when you start 1-4, those questions become a little bit louder,” explained Gilberti. “It took an entire season for us to show our team and to prove to our team methods and the philosophies, everything that we want to do and preach works. I think that’s carried over to the season. I think they know it now, and they’re just picking up and running with it.”
The Cougars have lost a minimal seven seniors from last year’s championship team and will start the season with a mixed roster of veterans and varsity-newcomers. The team, which was considered young in the previous season, now has 13 returners and seven rookies, three of which are seniors who have been promoted from the JV squad.
While the experience will help the team in the locker room Gilberti knows that it’s going to take more than familiarity to win games.
“There is a nice expectation around our group and their experience will help them in terms of how they prepare for the game … and that will help them as we move forward, [though] I don’t think that will be the reason we win games. We will have to win games because we play harder, faster, and execute at a higher level than the opponent.”
It’s always a plus for a team to have a strong returning core; however Gilberti also likes what he sees from the athletes filling the roster’s seven open spots. Most notable is the fact that the varsity rookies are willing to do whatever the coaching staff asks of them. It’s that mindset that will help the Cougars win games in a tough division.
The coach also made it clear that he will always put the best squad he possibly can out on the ice.
“It doesn’t make a difference if you’ve played on a team for four years or this is your fourth game, whoever is going to put us in the best possible position to win as of right now in, that moment is going to be the person that gets onto the ice … I think the players know what to expect.”
Despite the team being able to raise the championship trophy center ice at the Rock and the head coach being named NJ.com Coach of the Year, there is still a lot to work on. Gilberti has high expectations for his players to start the season mentally and physically ready to play and he’s not letting them sit back and ride on the heels of their success from last season.
At the start-of-season practices, the players are already showing that they trust Gilberti’s aggressive system that was instilled last year. The athletes are out on the ice running the drills themselves and it is apparent that the learning curve that was there at the beginning of the 2012-13 season has lessened with time.
“We want to make sure our team is playing at a higher level than they were all of last season. We want to push the bar to the level of hockey that we are playing at, the speed of hockey that we’re playing … there is no question we want to improve every facet of our game because we’re never really good enough.”
The Chatham Cougars’ skills will officially be tested in the opening weekend when they play Kinnelon High School on November 30.
For more, head to NJ Youth Hockey Central