For a program that has won a state championship as recently as 2016, few could have expected Morristown to experience the struggles that it did in 2018-19.
A very young roster took its lumps while playing the challenging schedule of the Mennen Division, as it won just two games all season and went winless in the division. It was unquestionably the worst season in recent memory for coach Bobby Jones’ program, and the last-place finish gave the team the option of dropping down to the Halvorsen Division.
But ultimately, Jones and his staff elected to stay in perhaps the state’s most competitive division, as they felt that playing the best will only make the team better. And so far, that decision appears to be paying off for the Colonials.
“We made the choice to stay in the Mennen Division,” Jones said after the team’s loss to Morris Knolls-Hills on Dec. 21. “We could’ve moved down to the Halvorsen, but we have pride and we value the intensity and the play of the Mennen Division teams. We know that being in this division makes us better. We may not make states like last year, but certainly we are progressing. Our kids are getting better from playing against higher competition. We’re thinking both short term and long term at the same time.”
While a roster that has just three seniors has still experienced some struggles, there have been signs that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The team’s 3-0 win over Madison on Dec. 19 was its first Mennen Division win in nearly two calendar years, with its last being a 2-1 win over Randolph on Feb. 1, 2018.
It has already tripled its overall win total from last year, as it holds a 6-5-2 record after finishing 2-16-4 in 2018-19. It has gone 3-2 in its last five, with wins over Kinnelon, Gov. Livingston, and Roxbury. Most recently, it dropped a close, 2-1 divisional battle to Chatham on Saturday.
“We’re showing progress, by far. Like I said, it’s important that we’re in this division. Our end goal here is a state championship,” Jones said. “Whether it’s this year or next, it’s to compete for a Mennen Cup, which is one of the best cups in high school hockey in New Jersey besides the Gordon (Cup).
“The consistency in our play is due to our age, but if you want to win in the playoffs, if you want to win a cup, if you want to win in states, you have to string together three or four wins some time in the season just to prove that you can do that. That’s the mental consistency and the physical consistency that we’re looking for with our guys.”
There are certainly some promising forwards for the Colonials, led by senior Conor Critchley (8 g., 4 a.). Junior Stefan Brockmann (3 g., 14 a.), sophomore Jack McKenna (11 g., 5 a.), and sophomore Harry Santen (6 g., 4 a.) have shown the ability to drive play offensively, and should only get better as they gain more experience.
However, Morristown has prided itself on defense during Jones’ 12-year tenure, and a sophomore trio of Francis Zaklukiewicz, Kobi Day, and Patrick Bozza are a core that it hopes to build around on the blue line in the coming years. Senior Nikko Inserra and junior Jack Keller (3 g., 5 a.) are being counted on to lead the way for the group this year, though.
And it also has a promising sophomore goaltender in Dylan Peck. Peck, who was the team’s primary starter as a freshman, has managed to keep the team in several games this year, and will also be a key piece for the team as it moves forward.
“I think that certainly our strength as a coaching staff is on the defense,” Jones said. “We certainly have some holes to fill in our play, in our systems and how we play. We’re really taking our time to teach our guys the right way. Dylan has been pretty solid in picking up the pieces. 31 shots against, and he kept us in the (Morris Knolls-Hills) game until the end. As a young goalie, I’m proud of him. He’s a homegrown Morristown kid, we’re just trying to develop our kids and do things the right way.”
The team’s above-.500 record has put them in a position to potentially make a run at a state tournament berth after missing out last season. It will certainly have its work cut out for it, though, as it still has four Mennen Division games against Madison, Morris Knolls-Hills, Morristown-Beard, and Randolph on the schedule.