By Mike Gurnis
MORRIS TOWNSHIP — What a difference a year makes.
At this time last year, Morristown-Beard was mired in its most difficult season in recent memory, which saw it finish below .500, and it needed to rely on an at-large bid just to qualify for the state tournament.
While it was certainly the case of a young team adapting to a new coaching staff, it was the type of year that a program- which had recently finished off a Mennen Cup four-peat in 2017- simply was not accustomed to.
It came into this season with higher expectations as its core group of players had a year of experience under its belt, but it found itself behind the 8-ball right away with back-to-back divisional losses to open the season.
At that point, few could have expected what would come next.
The Crimson went on an absolute tear, as they went unbeaten for nearly two months, going 15-1-1 in its next 17 games while earning signature wins over Bergen Catholic, Randolph and St. John Vianney, among others.
Remarkably, it won all of its remaining Mennen Division games, which concluded in Friday’s 6-0 win over Chatham at Mennen Arena. The win officially clinched a first place finish for the Crimson in the division, as well as the top seed in the upcoming Mennen Cup.
“It’s a great feeling. Coming into it, the boys were excited,” senior defenseman D.J. Layden said. “We knew we had a chance to clinch it. I think just all-around, everyone’s very happy. There’s obviously some very good teams in here, skilled teams that on a daily basis, anyone can win. So we’re excited for what the rest of the season brings for us.”
Friday’s game was a fitting conclusion to Morristown-Beard’s Mennen Division slate, as it won in a manner that has been the story of its season. Five different players found the back of the net, showcasing the team’s balance and offensive firepower. Nick Vantassell- a sophomore- scored twice, while Tommy Matthews, Seth Kaplan, Hollis Humphries, and Evan Sanford also got on the scoresheet.
“It’s definitely great. It gives the ‘D’ a little bit of a break,” Layden said. “Obviously Chatham and Jenn (Olnowich), she’s a great goalie and she’s going to play Division I. It’s good for us to get some shots on her, on a good goalie, because we’ll probably see her again in the playoffs. Just that whole team, Chatham doesn’t give up, so we’re excited about the turnout of today.”
When looking at the team’s 15-1-1 run since starting 0-2, consider this: it has scored five or more goals in 15 of those 17 games. It has established itself as one of the top offensive teams in the state, with six different players recording double-digit goals to this point.
“It’s great to be able to have that balance,” Morristown-Beard coach Scott Greene said. “I feel like we have two first lines, and a very good third line. Every game, there’s somebody different that’s contributing, which is nice to see. Sometimes it’s always just one or two guys. It makes it easier for us, and harder for other teams to defend a lot of different goal scorers and guys that work well together.”
The one concern going into the season was how the team would hold up defensively. While it has been so dominant offensively, defensive play is what makes the difference in playoff hockey, and shoring up the team’s defense has been a focus for the team in recent weeks to adapt to playoff hockey.
On Friday, its defensemen made a couple of big plays back-checking to shut down odd-man situations. And in the second period when it took three penalties close to each other, it found a way to shut down Chatham’s power play and even scored a shorthanded goal when Humphries forced a turnover at the blueline, creating an odd-man rush which he finished off.
In the rare instance that there was a breakdown defensively, goalie Luke McManus was there to make the stop, as he recorded 21 saves to earn the shutout.
“Against teams like this, we know how they play and we watch a lot of video on them,” Vantassell said. “Our coach made it really clear what he wanted on the penalty kill. Obviously we’re trying to avoid penalties, but sometimes it doesn’t go your way. We had to switch up what we were doing, we went really aggressive and it worked out for us.”
There are still two more regular season games to go, as it will have big tests against public-school power Ridge, the defending Public B champions, as well as Portledge (N.Y.) before opening up Mennen Cup play the week of Feb. 10.
And with the top seed now officially clinched, Morristown-Beard will go into the Mennen Cup as the likely favorite to win it, a year after losing in the first round in overtime to Chatham. It won seven Mennen Cups in nine years between 2009-17, and found itself in the final again in 2018 when it lost to Randolph.
Now, it will try to reclaim one of the hardest cups to win in New Jersey high school hockey.
“It would mean the world to us. As a senior, it’s my last year,” Layden said. “My freshman year I got the chance to be there on that team that won it, the four-peat. Unfortunately that was the last time we won it so I think it would mean a lot. Not only for us, but for our whole school, because that’s who we’re representing.”
MB — Tommy Matthews (Cam Fernandez) 6:15
MB — Nick Vantassell 10:13
MB — Seth Kaplan (Billy Moloney) 9:17
MB — Hollis Humphries SHG 1:03
MB — Nick Vantassell (Andrew Low, Seth Kaplan) 9:18
MB — Evan Sanford (Charlie Guida) 0:40
Shots on goal: Morristown-Beard 30, Chatham 21
Saves: Jennifer Olnowich (Chatham) 24, Luke McManus (Morristown-Beard) 21