By Mike Gurnis
MORRIS TWP. — While Morris Knolls-Hills experienced a state championship as recently as a year ago, it never hurts to have a reminder of just what needs to be done to win it all.
After an upset loss to Madison in the first round of the Mennen Cup, Morris Knolls-Hills assistant coach Anthony Scholz- a member of Morris Knolls’ 2013-14 state championship team- put together a video of his squad that year doing the hard work necessary to bring home a title.
No, there weren’t many highlight-reel plays that would be nominees for SportsCenter’s Top 10. In fact, they were the far less glamorous and often under-appreciated parts of the game, such as sacrificing the body to block shots and taking a hit to make a play- things that don’t show up on the score sheet.
The commitment to do whatever it takes to win was on full display for Morris Knolls-Hills on Monday night. An early one-goal deficit didn’t faze the top seeded Golden Eagles, as it scored four unanswered goals to pick up a 4-1 win over ninth seed Marlboro-Holmdel in the NJSIAA Public A Tournament quarterfinals at Mennen Arena.
The team protected a one-goal lead for most of the third period, and prevented few grade-A chances from reaching goalie Elliot Marken- even with multiple power play opportunities for Marlboro-Holmdel in the final frame, including a 38 second 5-on-3.
“It’s all about the team and not about themselves, not being pretty, and doing whatever it takes to help the team succeed,” Knolls-Hills coach Tim Kepler said. “We were struggling with a little bit of that throughout the season. It kind of woke them up here today a little bit.”
“That got all the guys amped up,” Jamie Betz said of his assistant coach’s video. “I watch it like five times before every game now. I know what it takes now. Taking the body, doing everything we have to do to win. Whatever it takes.”
Betz scored two goals in the game, including a momentum-shifting goal 3:15 into the second period which tied the game at one apiece. It came after a first period which saw Knolls-Hills with a shot advantage, but behind on the scoreboard after Marlboro’s Dante Balsamo scored late.
It’s a scenario that has plagued this team far too often this season, especially in its loss to Madison, where it out-shot Madison 43-21, but lost 1-0. While it would be easy to feel a sense of deja vu in the locker room, that was not the case on Monday night, and its mental fortitude paid off.
“It’s something we’ve been working on in practice- and mentally for them to stick with things,” Kepler said. “That first goal was on me. I didn’t get the match-up out there, the forward line that we wanted. I went in there and told them that- that’s on me. Part of that was on me, and I won’t let that happen again. Now we just have to bear down and play. I don’t think there was any doubt in our locker room that we would succeed tonight if we all did our jobs, and sacrificed ourselves for each other.”
Betz tied the game on a one-timer after receiving a pass from Jake DiLoreto from behind the net. Then, it took advantage of a major opportunity, as it had a 5-on-3 power play for a full minute. It only needed half of that, as Jake Quinn knocked home a rebound in front to give his team the lead for good.
“It was pretty good,” Betz said. “It got the guys moving. It got the guys making noise on the bench and talking. It really brought us together.”
Gehrig Eckoff finished off a 2-on-1 pass from J.D. Florio with just under six minutes left to extend the advantage to two, before Betz buried an empty-netter from center ice with 1:08 left.
Special teams proved to play a huge role in this one, as Morris Knolls-Hills not only capitalized on a 5-on-3, but prevented Marlboro-Holmdel from even getting a shot away on its two-man advantage in the third.
In total, Morris Knolls-Hills killed off five penalties in the game, which is a big reason why it is moving on.
“We also worked on that a lot in practice,” Betz said of his team’s special teams play. “We know we have to play aggressive, whatever power play or penalty kill that we run. We have to move the puck around, work our hardest, shut them down and do whatever it takes.”
Morris Knolls-Hills now finds itself one win away from returning to the state finals at Prudential Center for the second straight year, as it will take on fifth seed Jackson Liberty-Point Pleasant Boro in the semifinals on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. at Mennen Arena.
“It’s very exciting. We’re taking this one game at a time, though,” Betz said. “We have one more step to get to Prudential Center. We’re going to go all out on Wednesday against Jackson Liberty.”
MAR — Dante Balsamo (Joseph Solovey) 1:10
MKH — Jamie Betz (Jake DiLoreto, Dylan Idland) 11:45
MKH — Jake Quinn (Gehrig Eckoff, Jason Moskowitz) 6:04 PPG
MKH — Gehrig Eckoff (J.D. Florio, Jason Kwestel) 5:52
MKH — Jamie Betz 1:08 ENG
Shots: Morris Knolls-Hills 38, Marlboro-Holmdel 17
Saves: Elliot Marken (MKH) 16, Dimitri Kapranov (MAR) 34