By Mike Gurnis
It’s hard to win a championship. It’s even harder to stay on top.
After claiming the Public A state title last winter, Morris Knolls-Hills graduated a very talented senior class, and it would’ve been hard for many to envision the team getting back to Prudential Center.
But the outside expectations did not matter, and a younger Morris Knolls-Hills squad is one win away from a repeat.
Behind a three-goal, one-assist performance from junior Jason Kwestel, top seed Morris Knolls-Hills earned a dominant 8-1 win over fifth seed Jackson Liberty-Point Pleasant Boro in the NJSIAA Public A Tournament semifinals at Mennen Arena.
“It means everything to us. Especially the older guys,” Kwestel said. “A lot of people doubted us, said that we lost all the seniors and wouldn’t make it back. We just put our heads down and worked really hard, and we’re lucky enough to get back there this year.”
It will take on the winner of second seed Montclair and third seed Hunterdon Central in the final on Monday at 4:15 p.m. at the Prudential Center in Newark.
It all came after suffering a shocking upset loss to Madison in the first round of the Mennen Cup two weeks ago. That loss proved to be the spark that this team needed for the state tournament, and served as a wake-up call.
“We took all of our wins for granted, I think,” Kwestel said. “We have a lot of young guys on our team that didn’t really know what it takes to win a playoff game. We took that as a lesson and just learned to come out hard at practice and show up for states.”
Of Kwestal’s three goals, two came shorthanded. Gehrig Eckoff scored twice, while Jamie Betz scored his third goal in two games after a two-goal performance in the quarterfinals. Jake Quinn and Nick Torres also scored in the win.
“Jason’s a gamer. When big times come, he finds a way to get the team going,” Knolls-Hills coach Tim Kepler said. “We have a bunch of those as juniors. They played a lot as freshmen, they earned their stripes then a little bit before working their butts off last year as sophomores. They didn’t forget how much hard work it took to do what we did last year. We still haven’t won anything yet. We still have one more to go.”
Kepler added, “They want it. There’s a core of them that knows what it takes, and it’s been pretty contagious to the other kids. It’s just something that they want. We lost to Madison in the Mennen Cup, and that hurt pretty bad. But they said ‘that’s it, and we’re not losing again.”
Freshman goalie Elliot Marken continued his strong play in the state tournament, as he surrendered just one goal on 28 shots in the game. He has given up just two goals in his three starts in the state tournament to date.
MKH — Jamie Betz (Jake DiLoreto) 8:10
MKH — Gehrig Eckoff (Jason Kwestel, Andrew Ryan) 11:23
MKH — Jason Kwestel (J.D. Florio) 7:44
MKH — Jason Kwestel (Timmy Kepler) 3:19 SHG
MKH — Gehrig Eckoff (Derek Coleman, Jason Moskowitz) 11:25 PPG
JL — Brendan McCauley (Jason Andreyev) 9:00 PPG
MKH — Jake Quinn 5:14
MKH — Jason Kwestel 4:08 SHG
MKH — Nick Torres (Jason Moskowitz, Gavin Walsh) 1:04 PPG
Shots: Morris Knolls-Hills 38, Jackson Liberty-Point Pleasant Boro 28
Saves: Elliot Marken (MKH) 27, Kyle Jones (JL) 30