Nikolai Yershov and Adam Lohr-Pearson were rivals last year. This year, they are teammates and leaders for the newly combined West Windsor-Plainsboro ice hockey team.
The two high schools merged into one team as the result of a two-year co-op agreement before this season due to a lack of players at both schools.
“I think it’s a lot better,” said Yershov, a senior captain from High School South. “We have a lot more depth, a lot more leadership and a lot of guys that can put the biscuit in the basket.”
Lohr-Pearson is a senior forward who had a goal for North in their first game against the Pirates last year and an assist in the Knights’ second meeting with South last year. South won both of those games, their only two wins of the year, while WW-P North won six.
“For the North guys, we always looked forward to the North-South game,” Lohr-Pearson said. “It was always our biggest game of the year. We never thought about merging with South. They were always our biggest rivals. Once we got adjusted to it, I realized this isn’t such a bad idea. Even though we won’t have the big North-South game, at least we’ll be able to win some games.”
The “Knirates,” as the co-op cheers before games as a fun combination of their Knights and Pirates nicknames, has a challenging first half of their schedule. They opened the year 1-4-1 with a late goal to earn a 5-5 tie against Steinert and a 11-3 win against Landsdale Catholic.
“We have to work on even more team camaraderie,” Lohr-Pearson said. “A lot of that responsibility focuses on me and Nikolai helping pull the schools together. We’re all friends, but we have to bring that onto the ice. It’ll come with some more practices and games.”
The hockey team is the first to combine existing teams from North and South since the school district split the athletics programs in 2000.
“I’m sure they’ll like the improvement after they see our record at the end of the season,” Yershov said. “Also, this team will maybe help bring the district closer together. Kids from both schools can help support one team and make new friendships and connections.”
The seniors and the coaches helped to make sure that the co-op got off to a strong start.
“From the very beginning when we did some preseason workouts, there were no issues whatsoever,” said Laurent Lassance, co-coach of WW-P after coaching at South for the last 15 years, the last six as head coach. “Everybody got along. It really wasn’t a bad transition at all.
Andrew Ferencevych, the co-coach who has been North head coach for four years, said he only had between 12 and 14 players the last two years. “It was something pretty much here when I took the job. There weren’t that many kids. My second year, there were seven seniors, but most of them didn’t have a lot of hockey experience.
“All the teams in the CVC have struggled,” he said. “I don’t think teams in the CVC have been able to compete with teams from other leagues because the numbers have been down across the board.”
The team has an almost perfect blend of 10 players from South and 11 from North in its top 21. They also have five players who are considered developmental.
The varsity players for WW-P are: sophomore Ryan Chi, freshman Aidan Crichton, junior David Corell, junior Kevin Doody, sophomore Anuj Dutta, freshman Nick Flissar, junior Luke Gilliland, junior Zach Inverso, Lohr-Pearson, senior Jonathan Nestel, junior Sam Parris, sophomore Tiyani Peng, junior Tyler Shankoff, freshman Senan Shannon, senior Gordon Sine, sophomore Anish Thakkelapally, sophomore Amir Umarov, junior Daniel Wang, junior Bryce Wilus, senior Jeremy Wong and Yershov.
Lohr-Pearson said having two solid lines is key. “Last year, we had a couple kids from both schools that could skate well and had a lot of skill. This year, with all those guys put together, we have a lot more depth, better defense, two good lines of offense.”
The merger is good for some practical reasons for WW-P North as well. With the graduation of Ian Schwartz, they would not have had a goalie this year. WW-P South’s returning goalie, P.J. Keenan, transferred so Luke Gilliland is the only goalie on the co-op team’s roster.
“The two squads fit like two puzzle pieces,” Yershov said. “We both fill in each other’s gaps. In game play, we have a full power play line, a full penalty kill line. It’s a positive for both teams.”
Getting an early start on playing together once the merger was announced last year has helped. They continue to forge friendships and learn each other’s strengths in practices. They get more out of practices now too with more skaters, and with the two teams combining, they have more practice time slotted to them after combining budgets from both schools.
“It’s a lot better in practice,” Yershov said. “We never divide North vs. South because our main focus now is to combine as one team, forget that we were enemies last year because that’s going to affect our play in a negative manner. Our No. 1 goal is to combine and just have good chemistry so none of it is North vs. South.”