By Mike Gurnis
Vernon’s mental fortitude was tested throughout all of Tuesday’s Sussex Cup final.
Whether it was a two-goal deficit in the first period, seeing Sparta-Jefferson score the tying goal with 1:30 left in the game, or the superb play of Sparta-Jefferson netminder Logan Hanek, Vernon faced one challenge after another.
But for every punch it took from Sparta-Jefferson, it found a way to counter. Finally, on the team’s 64th shot of the game, a fortunate bounce gave Vernon junior Ayden Steinbach the opportunity to end the game, as he capitalized with 6:58 left in overtime to lift the Vikings to their fourth-consecutive Sussex Cup title, a 5-4 win over Sparta-Jefferson United at Skylands Ice World.
“It’s amazing. We’ve worked so hard for this,” said Vernon senior captain Carlie VanTassel. “All of the practices and everything, it’s so worth it. To have a tight game like that, everything that we’ve worked for, it just shows when that kind of win happens.”
The game-winner came after a pass attempt by Sparta-Jefferson bounced off the referee behind the net, kicking out to Steinbach in front, who made a move past the defender before backhanding one home for his second goal of the game.
“It bounced off the ref, I think,” Steinbach said of the goal. “I think it hit his leg or something, and the Sparta defenseman missed it, and the goalie started to slide over. I think it hitting the ref threw him off and I just kind of tapped it in into the open net in the bottom corner.
“My first thought was ‘wow, this is kind of lucky.’ Then, I just buried it.”
But Sparta-Jefferson did all it could to try to spoil the party for Vernon.
Thanks to a pair of goals by James Battaglia in the opening eight minutes of the game, Sparta-Jefferson built a 2-0 lead in its bid to claim the title for the first time since 2014, when Sparta, as a solo program, last won it.
Vernon bounced back as Ayden and Evan Steinbach scored 50 seconds apart early in the second to tie it up, and it appeared the momentum had tilted drastically towards the Vikings. But Battaglia capitalized on the power play midway through the second to complete the hat-trick and give Sparta-Jefferson the one-goal lead, which it took into the third.
“The first period, we came out pretty slow and it was pretty rough,” said Vernon captain T.J. Santaita. “Coach immediately had a talk with the guys in the locker room in between periods on what we had to improve on. It worked out in the end.”
Sure enough, it was Santaita who put Vernon in the driver’s seat in the third, as he scored twice in a span of 2:37 to give his team the lead for the first time in the game.
It appeared that Vernon was well on its way to closing it out in regulation. But it could not find the insurance goal, as Hanek- who finished with 59 saves- did all he could to keep Sparta-Jefferson in it. Then, with 1:31 left, it was Alex Cohen who knotted up the score off a feed from Battaglia, sending the game to the extra session.
“You see the puck cross the goal line, and your heart kind of just drops for a second,” Santaita said of the late game-tying goal. “But all good teams, you have to bounce back after that and get your head back in the game. You can’t dwell on it.”
The team’s preparation for tight, late-game situations like this one paid off. It was a similar finish to the team’s first title of this run, when it surrendered a lead late before winning in overtime against Newton-Lenape Valley in the 2016 final.
“We were like that in every practice. (Coach) Ray (Zimmerman) made sure that all of our drills, we’d have a lot of intensity,” VanTassel said. “He always reminded us that if it comes down to a game in a tight squeeze like that, we have to make sure we practice like we play. When we’re tired, that hard work will show in the game.”
This year’s Vernon team is certainly a younger team than in years past, with just three seniors on the roster including captains Santaita and VanTassel.
It has now become a yearly tradition for the team to be spending its New Year’s Eve afternoon by having the previous year’s captains hand off the trophy to this year’s captains. With a young but talented roster, it hopes that its two senior captains will be handing off the trophy to the next set of captains on New Year’s Eve 2020.
“You get to graduate high school and know that there’s one thing that you didn’t let slip away from you,” Santaita said. “It feels great, and the guys behind me too I’m sure will try to keep the streak going.”
SJU — James Battaglia (Kyle Sutton) 14:43
SJU — James Battaglia (Mike Schmidt) 7:04
VER — Ayden Steinbach (Dylan Shea) 12:23
VER — Evan Steinbach (Dylan Shea, Ayden Steinbach) 11:33
SJU — James Battaglia (Kyle Sutton, Matthew Francescutto) 7:41 PPG
VER — T.J. Santaita 13:22
VER — T.J. Santaita 10:45
SJU — Alex Cohen (James Battaglia, Matthew Francescutto) 1:31
VER — Ayden Steinbach 6:58
Shots on goal: Vernon 64, Sparta-Jefferson 36
Saves: Logan Hanek (Sparta-Jefferson) 59, Ozzie Deluca (Vernon) 32