By Mike Gurnis
STOCKHOLM — The goal for Morris Knolls going into Saturday night’s game against Vernon was simple- win, and you’re in the state tournament.
In the team’s final game before the state tournament cutoff, the Golden Eagles had an 8-8-3 record, meaning a win or a tie would secure a .500 record and its place in the Public A state tournament. While it would have had a very strong case for an at-large bid if it fell short, it wanted to make sure that its fate did not fall into anyone else’s hands.
Morris Knolls did exactly that, as it scored four goals in the first period and never looked back in a dominant 6-0 win over the Halvorsen Division’s top team in Vernon at Skylands Ice World.
Jason Miesegas, Jason Kwestel, Andrew Ryan, and Sean Murray all scored in a span of 3:25 in the first period. It was the beginning of a thoroughly dominant performance, in which Morris Knolls out-shot Vernon 46-11.
Jason Moskowitz and Kyle Conklin each added goals in the third period. Ty Franchi and Kevin Appleby combined for the shutout, as Franchi stopped all nine shots he faced before being relieved by Appleby with five minutes left in the third period. Appleby stopped both shots he saw.
“We wanted to get the win to secure the state bid,” senior Tik Ryerson said of the importance of getting out to a quick start. “We just knew that sometimes, if you let teams come back, then they get momentum, and we just wanted to keep the pedal on the metal the whole time.”
The win extended Morris Knolls’ unbeaten streak to seven, as it has not lost since a Jan. 5 loss to Westfield. After that loss, it sat with a 4-8-1 record, and its hopes of returning to the state tournament appeared to be very dim.
But the team came together, as it earned dominant wins over Morristown Roxbury, Morristown-Beard and Red Bank Catholic, in which it outscored its opponents 22-3. Then, it earned a pair of impressive ties- first against the state’s top-ranked public school team in Madison, followed by a 5-5 tie with defending Public C champion Summit.
After going nearly a month without a win from Dec. 12-Jan. 5, it has now gone almost a month without a loss.
“After we went a month straight without a win, we decided to come together,” Ryerson said. “We had a serious talk. We put what we want in front of us, which is a state championship. We realized that if we want it, we have to be a family. We just started putting each other before ourselves, and we started working hard for it.”
Senior Kieran Regen, who has missed most of the year with an injury, added: “It just means that we all came together at the right time. We bought into the system that we’ve been trying to play the whole year, and it happened at a good time.”
Now, what may have been a pipe dream a month ago is becoming more and more of a reality with each passing game. Morris Knolls has emerged as a serious contender for the Public A title with its recent play, and the group is feeling very confident as it gets ready for next week’s Mennen Cup, where it is seeded third.
“The past month really showed us the potential we have,” Ryerson said. “We obviously don’t want to be overconfident. But we’re feeling pretty good about what we can do, we just have to focus on our game.”
Regen echoed Ryerson’s take on the team’s confidence level.
“The team’s feeling great,” Regen said. “The confidence level is up, everyone’s rolling, and we’re getting back in the swing of things. We love it.”
MK — Jason Miesegas (Nick Torres, Sean Van Dine) 7:53
MK — Jason Kwestel (Jacob Walsh, Derek Coleman) 6:49
MK — Andrew Ryan (Jason Miesegas, James Betz) 4:43 PPG
MK — Sean Murray (Jacob Walsh, Robbie Singley) 4:28 PPG
MK — Jason Moskowitz (Jason Kwestel) 5:10
MK — Kyle Conklin (Dylan Idland) 3:33
Shots on goal: Morris Knolls 46, Vernon 11.
Saves: Ozzie Deluca (Vernon) 40, Ty Franchi (Morris Knolls) 9, Kevin Appleby (Morris Knolls) 2.