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A year ago at this time, Malvern Prep lost twice in its first four games. It was almost expected, considering the fact that the Friars had lost an incredible 2021 class to graduation, and it gave ample fuel to the idea that they’d take a backseat to others in Philly’s Inter-Academic League.

So much for that though after the Friars bounced back to win 18 of their next 19 games, including a double-overtime thriller over rival Haverford School in the Inter-Ac tournament title game on AJ Nikolic‘s game-winner.

This year, the expectations are back to where Malvern usually has them, and that’s quite OK with them. Last Saturday’s IAC / Inter-Ac Challenge 12-9 win over perennial IAC powerhouse Bullis did nothing to temper those expectations, either. It marked new head coach Matt Mackrides‘ first win as head coach at his alma mater after years of being an assistant on John McEvoy‘s staff.


The Team to Beat in the Inter-Ac

Nope, doesn’t look like the Friars are going anywhere.

“We’re on a win streak in the Inter-Ac right now,” Nikolic said of the four-time reigning champions. “There’s always a bigger target each year and last year, we weren’t supposed to win it, but we did. We’ve got a lot of returning players, unlike last year, so the X is even bigger on our back.”

Malvern came storming out of the gates, ringing up a 6-1 first-quarter lead and never looking back. It wasn’t just that the Friars scored goals. It was also how they scored them. Sophomore Owen Mears (Big 4 HHH) eviscerated the near-side top corner with an inch-perfect shot. Nikolic hauled a Michael Ortlieb (Big 4 HHH) pass out of the sky and snapped a behind-the-back rocket home. Ennis Udo (Brown) dunked home a nasty backhander.

The Friars have a ton of talent in every class, with sophomores like Mears, Ortlieb and Jake Bickel (one goal, one assist) announcing their arrival. As usual, Malvern’s players looked like they’d spent the entire offseason chained inside the weight room. While the Inter-Ac is perennially loaded with high-end teams, the Friars are favored to make it five straight.

“It’s just about everyone sticking up for themselves,” lights-out short-stick defensive midfielder Peri DiBartolomeo said. “We’re all in it together.”

“It’s a little monkey off the back, but we’re business as usual,” Mackrides said of his first win as a head coach. “I’ve been a coach in this program for 10 years. There’s a target on our back every year. It’s not just coach speak to the kids. Nobody wants to lose to Malvern. Everybody wants to give it their best effort with us. Our kids have embraced that mentality. They’ve put in the work every day and it kind of shows on the field in gameplay.”

Bullis is Still a Threat

On the other side, Bullis lost, but it will be just fine this season. There’s an outstanding attack line of Chase Band (Virginia), Tucker Wade (Princeton) and sophomore Jackson Maher, who will have his pick of schools come Sept. 1 of this year. Wade was clearly not at 100 percent and didn’t move the way he used to. If he can get healthy or even close to 100 percent, this is as good an attack line as there is in the country. Band was exceptional with four goals and three assists. Maher popped two goals and an assist.

Defensively, Syracuse commit Brayden Ferguson (MadLax) shook off the early onslaught from Malvern and gave the Bulldogs a chance to claw back into the game.

Bullis – Malvern Prep Standouts 

Chase Band, attack, Bullis – Virginia

Band was one of the revelations of the 2022 campaign after putting together a dominant season for the Bulldogs. He was flat-out terrific against the Friars, going off for four goals and three assists. Band’s always been known as a big-time scorer, so it wasn’t much of a surprise to see him hammer home a couple of bombs from the wing. His passing game, though, is much better than advertised. He found sophomore sensation Jackson Maher for a dunk on the crease and dished out helpers on a pair of Jackson Tolmach goals. At about 6-3, 190 pounds, Band has great size, which helps him pack a lot of power into his shot. He does an excellent job of keeping his head up and working in unison with Maher and NLF No. 8 ’23 Tucker Wade (Princeton) at attack.

Lucca DiBartolomeo, LSM, Malvern Prep – Penn State 

DiBartolomeo doesn’t throw checks so much as to cause havoc as he does to inflict pain. A lot of it. Every check is meant to do damage. There can’t be many high-level poles who throw harder checks than the NLF’s No. 5 ’24, but DiBartolomeo is also measured and cerebral in how he plays. The top pole in the class asserted himself early on with an impressive ground ball on the game’s opening faceoff. He also had a nasty helicopter check in the fourth quarter where he carefully tracked his man in the middle of the field before striking with a perfectly-timed check. He and his brother, Peri, were a very impactful tandem that helped Nick Wehmeyer (Yale) to a 15-for-21 day at the dot. DiBartolomeo’s combination of high energy, grit and skill make him a matchup nightmare for opponents. His defensive skills are far more advanced than the traditional modern-day LSM’s.

Peri DiBartolomeo, SSDM, Malvern Prep – Penn State 

DiBartolomeo, his twin, SSDM Roman, and older brother Lucca are among the crown jewels of a ludicrously-good in-state class for the Nittany Lions. The three brothers play so freaking hard and have so much sandpaper to their game that it elevates the play of those around them. Peri was a force all over the field for the Friars, helping to erase any sort of dodging midfield presence for Bullis. The lefty doesn’t need slides and seems like he gets personally offended if any of his teammates do slide. He gobbled up four ground balls, making impactful plays on the wings, and also had an impressive caused turnover where he tossed a ball carrier to the ground, grabbed the ground ball and ran it down 50 yards.

“Me and my brothers, we grew up all a similar age and always fighting,” DiBartolomeo said with a laugh. “We come out here and pick up the intensity as a team. That’s what we were made to do. That’s what our pops told us to do, so come out here and execute.”

Jackson Maher ’25, attack, Bullis 

Maher was billed as one of the top prospects in the 2025 class and sure looked the part with two goals and an assist. At 6-3, 185 pounds, he’s got prototypical size. While he’s not a burner, he’s deceptively quick and has elite body control to go with soft hands. He racked up 27 goals and 10 assists as a freshman, numbers that he’ll blow past this year, and he’s super comfortable playing lefty attack as a righty. Maher initiates a ton and had a textbook question mark goal late in the third quarter that showed why he’s a mismatch. Malvern didn’t slide to him, and he took advantage of it. If you do slide to him, he’s got the vision to find the open man.

AJ Nikolic ’23, attack/midfield/whatever he wants to play, Malvern Prep – Cornell – NLF No. 28 ’23

The NLF’s ’23 rankings are overdue for an update, but you can be very certain that Nikolic will be much higher than No. 28 in the next ones. It sure seems like he’s overtaken the title as the best player in the state of Pennsylvania. There’s nothing that he can’t do. Against Bullis, he scored a pair of goals off of Michael Ortlieb (Big 4 HHH) feeds, including a ridiculous behind-the-back goal on the left post that was eerily reminiscent of goals he used to score off of Penn State‘s Will Peden‘s passes two years ago.

Earlier, Nikolic hammered home a stepdown. He can feed, pass, play the faceoff wings, initiate, score off-ball, whatever. Nikolic leads by example, and you can tell that his teammates gravitate towards him. He was primarily an attackman last year after the Friars graduated the likes of Peden, Eric Spanos (Maryland) and Colin McGill (Dartmouth). This year, Malvern lost midfielders Army commit John Majka to a torn ACL and Maryland commit Ryan Falkenstein (Maryland) a torn MCL and PCL, so Nikolic finds himself back in the midfield. No matter what, he’s incredibly impactful.

“It’s whatever Coach wants,” Nikolic said. “I’m used to attack now. I played middie my whole life. Whatever Coach needs, I’m there to play.”

Malvern Prep 12, Bullis 9

Malvern Prep (1-0)

AJ Nikolic ’23 (Cornell) 2 goals, 1 assist
Ennis Udo ’24 (Brown) 2 goals
Billy Irish ’23 (Lafayette) 2 goals, 1 assist
Dylan O’Connor ’23 2 goals
Michael Ortlieb ’25 (Big 4 HHH) 1 goal, 3 assists
Jake Bickel ’25 1 goal, 1 assist
Owen Mears ’25 (Big 4 HHH) 1 goal
Nick Wehyemer ’24 (Yale) 1 goal, 15-for-21 faceoffs
Pat Mears ’23 1-for-4 faceoffs
Chris Rabena ’23 7 saves

Bullis (3-1)

Chase Band ’23 (Virginia) 4 goals, 3 assists
Jackson Tolmach ’25 3 goals
Jackson Maher ’25 2 goals, 1 assist
Jewel Walker ’24 (Ohio State) 1 assist
Tucker Wade ’23 (Princeton) 1 assist
Ben Jose ’23 (Saint Joseph’s) 1 assist
Brayden Ferguson ’24 (MadLax / Syracuse) 13 saves