Cory Zrinko works the puck during a game against Steinert on December 8 at Mercer County Park.

Julian Bolton evades a Steinert player on December 8.

Alex Finan searches for an opening against Steinert on December 8.

The members of the Lawrence High School ice hockey team and first-year head coach John Ritchie want to redefine the Cardinals’ hockey culture.

After several sub-par seasons, the boys are ready for a change.

“The biggest things [are] just trying to make a name for ourselves and to create an identity for the hockey team at Lawrence,” Ritchie said.

This season is as good as any to do just that. The team is much stronger than in years past, and other area teams have taken notice.

“Everyone around the league is coming up to me and giving us compliments, saying that this is the best-organized team that they’ve seen from Lawrence, that we don’t quit, and we play positions well,” Ritchie said. “I don’t always agree with them, but I absolutely agree that these guys do care and that they want to be successful.”

Change seems to be the theme for the Cardinals this season, right down to their jerseys. The team recently got new uniforms.

“Look good, play good,” senior Alex Finan said.

Ritchie said even a seemingly small change like a new jersey impacts the way the squad plays and approaches the game.

“It’s important to these guys,” he said. “It shows that people care. It shows that people want them to do well.”

The boys want to do well, too. One of the keys to making sure that happens is the senior leadership.

Players like Pat Kelly, Ross Doerler and Finan have been playing hockey for most of their lives. They use that to their advantage when it comes to helping Ritchie lead the team.

“Lawrence hockey is definitely a different kind of leadership,” Kelly said. “Not everybody has the same hockey IQ. Saying that, you have to approach things differently as far as giving advice and making sure people understand what you’re talking about in a hockey sense. You don’t want to see anybody get discouraged.”

Doerler agreed.

“A lot of these kids have only been playing hockey since freshman year,” he said. “It’s just a completely different outlook you have to take when you’re teaching them right from wrong hockey-wise.”

Finan said he recognizes the influence upperclassmen have on the newcomers.

“I think when you become a freshman, you learn from the seniors and the older kids what winning is like, how to show respect, how to be a good player,” he said. “Then, they pass it down from player to player and continue the tradition.”

Travis Pelke, though, is one freshman who needed very little guidance.

Pelke has only played a few games as Lawrence’s goalkeeper, but he is already making waves across the Colonial Valley Conference.

“He’s a legitimate goaltender that can steal games for us,” Ritchie said. “As a goalie, the most important thing to do is let go of the goals. The more that you keep them on your mind, the easier it’s going to be for the other team to score again. He does a great job of letting it go, shaking it off, and getting back in the game. I don’t think the CVC’s even begun to see how god he can be.”

Kelly recalled the team’s second game of the season, an 8-5 loss to West Windsor-Plainsboro North.

“[Pelke] had at least three or four bad-bounce goals,” he said. “One went right off the guy’s skates. I would come up to him and just try to get his confidence up, but he was already positive. When he’s out there standing on his head for us and playing amazing regardless, it makes us want to go out and do something.”

From Pelke’s prowess between the pipes to the seniors’ knowledge of the sport, this could be the Cardinals’ season to shine.

The boys said as the season progresses, they want to defeat teams like Robbinsville which have given them trouble the last few years. They also hope to finish the season at .500 or above and qualify for the state tournament.

Ritchie wants to see those goals through. As a freshman in high school, his team at Holy Ghost Prep in Pennsylvania reached the state championship game.

“My entire career, I’ve been very privileged,” he said. “I’ve played for very good team. That’s something that I still remember now,” he said. “If I can bring a little bit of my success and a little bit of my knowledge to help these guys have a successful senior year, I’m sure that’s something they will remember as well.”

Ritchie was an assistant coach with the team last year. Now that he’s at the helm, he hopes his passion for the game shines through and affects the rest of the team.

“I’m sure being on the bench with me is high and low,” he said. “I’m either super, super pumped or I’m really, really angry, but I’m really proud of this team.”

He said as long as the boys play consistent hockey, they can control where they will be at the end of the season.

“Over the last two years, our biggest thing has been starting strong and finishing the game strong,” he said. “You can’t play one period of hockey. We need to play three solid periods, play our positions, and go out and give it everything that we have. We still have a long way to go, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

With success will come recognition.

“We just need to get our name out there,” Ritchie said. “I just hope for these guys that their senior year is special and that we can just continue the Lawrence hockey program’s tradition.”