Unlikely hockey heroes
Hudson Catholic completes climb from also-ran to state champs
Nine years ago, Cory Robinson had never even heard of Hudson Catholic High School.
"I had no idea where it was," Robinson said.
Jersey City and Hudson Catholic had to be the furthest thing from Robinson’s mind. For all intents and purposes, Jersey City and New Jersey were foreign lands, as foreign as Tibet or Madagascar.
After all, at the time, Robinson was a Brooklyn boy through and through. He went to Xaverian High School, the same school that produced basketball star Chris Mullin of the Indiana Pacers. Robinson was the school’s best goaltender, who, like Mullin before him, then went on to St. John’s, where he stopped his share of shots as well.
After graduating from St. John’s, Robinson wanted to pursue the possibility of coaching. He spent a year working with the goaltenders at his alma mater, then was introduced to the possibility of moving across the Hudson River to Jersey City when his cousin Pete Jerembeck was hired as the head hockey coach at Hudson Catholic.
"When he asked me to be his assistant, I followed," Robinson said. "New Jersey hockey. It was a new start for me. I figured, ‘What the heck? Let’s give it a try.’ I thought it could be a good opportunity."
It didn’t take long for Robinson to question what he was doing.
"I went to the first practice and there were about 10 kids who were just learning to skate," Robinson said. "There were three kids there, Chris Heger, Bill Pein and Dave Dragone, who could actually play. The rest were total beginners. I wondered right there what I had gotten myself into."
A year later, after the Hawks collected all of seven wins, Jerembeck abandoned ship, taking a job at Wagner College. Robinson had the opportunity to follow his cousin again to the collegiate ranks. But Robinson decided to stay.
"I wanted the chance to be a head coach and (then athletic director) Tom Gentile recognized that I had the potential to be a head coach and he wanted me to stay," Robinson said. "So I stayed."
Nine years later, Robinson is enjoying the pinnacle. His Hudson Catholic team pulled off the unthinkable Monday night, defeating Hudson County rival Bayonne 4-2 to capture the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions hockey title at the Continental Airlines Arena.
It’s almost too unbelievable to fathom. Hudson Catholic, the school located on McGinley Square in Jersey City, reigns as the hockey king of the entire state.
"It’s an absolute dream come true," Robinson said. "I still can’t believe it."
The traditional hockey powers in New Jersey come from more affluent areas like Brick Township or from more affluent schools like Seton Hall Prep and Delbarton. State hockey champions don’t generally come from the inner city. This is the true underdog story in the purest sense.
There was a time that Jersey City didn’t even have a skating rink. Pershing Field’s facility was not completed. There was nothing else available.
"We would practice every Monday in Staten Island from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.," Robinson said. "That was it. We practiced once a week. The rest of the time was spent running in the gym and drawing on the blackboard. It was a hard sell with no ice time."
Undaunted, Robinson kept after it. The coach had modest goals at first. Just be as good as rival St. Peter’s Prep.
"We had to get on a par with them," Robinson said.
Then, there were steps up the ladder of competition throughout the state. In New Jersey high school hockey, you progress in terms of the divisions you play in. The best teams play with the elite in the National A division. Needless to say, Hudson Catholic was nowhere near the elite nine years ago. They resided in the weaker conference, the American, and the weaker divisions.
"Where did they play at the time?" senior Ryan Trott said. "National D? I don’t even know. Hudson Catholic was way down there. It’s just amazing to see how far we’ve come."
And during that time, Hudson Catholic got a taste of how the elite teams live. They played Seton Hall Prep. Final score: Seton Hall 10, Hudson Catholic 0.
"That was 1993," Robinson recalled. "After the game, the coach shook my hand and told me that if we weren’t missing our best player, Chris Heger, then the score would have been closer. Like what? Like 7-0? It was hard to even think we could be on the same level with them."
Again, gradual steps. The Hawks won the American B division, made the state tournament for the first time and defeated Morris Knolls for the first-ever state tournament game. Strides toward respectability.
"Little by little, we were coming along," Robinson said. "We were able to get more ice time. And we had some blue chippers come in."
But there were some setbacks along the way. Brandon Doria, who began his career at Hudson Catholic, was wooed away by the state power Seton Hall Prep. He later went on to lead Seton Hall to the Tournament of Champions title. That never stopped Robinson’s drive.
"The Doria transfer hurt us, but we still maintained our gradual progression," Robinson said. "We kept getting better."
There were more losses to Seton Hall Prep along the way, although the gap was getting closer. Trott, who hails from Maplewood, just a few blocks from Seton Hall Prep’s campus, heard the ribbing coming from his friends in the neighborhood.
"They all abused me," Trott said. "It was embarrassing and it was pretty bad.."
When the 1999-2000 season began, Robinson had a good feeling, that his team was ready to make the quantum leap to compete with the big boys. The Hawks were placed in the elite division, National A, for the first time.
"I thought that there were four teams who could win it all and were better than us," Robinson said. "I thought it was Seton Hall Prep, Brick, Delbarton and Bergen Catholic. I didn’t know where we fit in with those teams. I was hoping that we could compete."
Robinson’s players had something else in mind, especially after defeating Seton Hall Prep and Delbarton and tying Brick during the regular season.
"A lot of us never thought it was possible," said Frank Baker, a native of Weehawken. "But when we beat Seton Hall, we felt like we could make it to the finals."
After defeating Delbarton, the Hawks soared all the way to the top spot in the state, ranked No. 1 by the Star-Ledger. But the Hawks didn’t remain there. They suffered losses to Seton Hall, then Brick in the National A playoffs.
"I think those losses helped us to wake up a lot," Baker said.
"I think the loss to Brick put things in perspective," Robinson said. "We were too loose and too overconfident and had no reason to feel that way. When we lost to Seton Hall, it was 2-1, but I knew we could beat that team."
Later on, the Hawks did exactly that, turning the tide on rival Seton Hall to win the Parochial state crown. Two nights later, they defeated Bayonne in the unimaginable All-Hudson County state finale.
Since then, Robinson has been soaking it all up.
"I’ve heard from former players that I haven’t heard from in years," Robinson said. "My high school coach came to the game at the Meadowlands. It’s been crazy, but a good crazy. I still can’t believe we won it."
"In the future, I will definitely look back on this and still be amazed," Trott said. "Coming home that night after winning it all, I kept thinking about what we accomplished. It really is a special, good feeling."
One that can never be taken away.