Phil Anastasia: Chris Gentile returns to Eustace.
Back from juniors - to be a senior
He also wants to be a high school kid.
He wants to skate as far as his talent and determination will take him.
He also wants to play with his friends, and graduate with his class.
After spending close to a year in junior hockey in Springfield, Ill., Gentile believes he has found the best of both worlds.
It's called home.
"I'm so excited to be back," said Gentile, a strong and speedy senior forward for the Bishop Eustace Prep School team. "This is definitely where I want to be."
Bishop Eustace is the No. 1 team in the state, according to njpowerranking.com, thanks in large part to the senior goaltending tandem of Nick Casella and Kyle Van Osten, as well as a deep and talented group of skaters that includes forward Jamie Hill and defenseman Zach Green.
But Bishop Eustace coach Mike Green and assistant coach Keith Primeau, the former Flyers captain, believe the Crusaders also have the best player in the state in the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Gentile.
"I remember when Chris came here as a freshman, I said then that when he was a senior he could be the best player in the state," Primeau said the other day after a Crusaders practice at the Flyers SkateZone in Pennsauken. "He's got that next gear. That's what separates great players from good players."
Like many talented players, Gentile stepped away from New Jersey high school hockey because he thought he could advance his career. Some players transfer to New England prep schools. Others go the junior-hockey route.
That's what Gentile did last year. He spent nine months living with a host family in Springfield, Ill., and playing for the Springfield Junior Blues of the North American Hockey League.
"It was a great experience as far as improving my game," said Gentile, who lives in Mullica Hill. "Everything is fast. I had to get faster. I had to compete. I had to compete like crazy in practice just to be able to play."
Gentile attended Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield during the week, then rode in a bus with his Junior Blues teammates to games nearly every weekend. He said the team played a 60- to 70-game schedule.
Hockey-wise, it was everything he expected, and more. But it was tough being away from home as a 17-year-old, missing family and friends, missing his old high school team.
"I'm not sure I was ready mentally to be away that long," Gentile said.
Gentile had played for Bishop Eustace as a freshman and sophomore. His career has coincided with a surge in the strength of the program, and with New Jersey scholastic ice hockey in general.
Green and Primeau strongly believe that the top teams in the NJSIAA's Gordon Conference - which features Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine Prep as well as North Jersey powers Delbarton and Bergen Catholic, among others - have closed the gap on the top prep-school teams in New England.
In addition, with a beefed-up schedule that opens with Malvern Prep tomorrow and includes Pennsylvania power Wyoming Seminary, Lawrenceville Prep and Upper Canada College of Toronto, Bishop Eustace offers its players a level of competition that can accelerate their careers - whether they hope to play big-time college hockey or pursue a professional opportunity through the junior ranks after high school graduation.
"Sometimes it's a hard sell keeping kids here," Primeau said. "But we believe we've gotten things to the point where kids can stay here and still get recognition and opportunities."
Gentile could be a good example of that. With his speed, hands, grit and feel for the game, he's likely to draw interest from major-college programs. He also believes he showed last year that he can compete with top players at the junior level.
But now he's got a chance to continue to improve, and to play his final scholastic season with his old teammates for a squad with its sights set on a state championship.
"I found out I could play anywhere if I put my mind to it," Gentile said. "But this is so much fun for me to be back and playing for Bishop Eustace. We're going to give it everything we have.
"We're projected to be the best. Now we've got to show it."
Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223