By Mike Gurnis
MORRIS TWP. — Going into Thursday’s Mennen Cup final, Morris Knolls-Hills knew it would have to play as close to a perfect game as possible in order to shut down a speedy and talented Morristown-Beard attack.
For 45 minutes, it did exactly that. Whether it was staying out of the penalty box and not giving one of the top power plays in the area any opportunities, sacrificing the body to block shots, or taking away as much time and space from a team that doesn’t need much of it to score, Morris Knolls-Hills did just about all it could to come away with a title.
But like it has all season long, Morristown-Beard found a way.
Thanks to a pair of opportunistic goals from sophomore Roman Berger, it built a two-goal lead in the third period. And when Morris Knolls-Hills put together a surge late in the period to try to tie the game, senior goalie Luke McManus made key saves to secure the lead, before Cam Fernandez iced it with an empty-net goal.
Morristown-Beard 3, Morris Knolls-Hills 1.
The Crimson skated off the Mennen Arena ice with the Mennen Cup title for the 13th time in program history, and completed a repeat after defeating Randolph for the title last winter.
It was certainly a well-earned title, as Morristown-Beard finishes Mennen play with a perfect 7-0 record, and won all three games against Morris Knolls-Hills, a two-time reigning Public A state champion. While the first two meetings ended by scores of 8-3 and 4-1, Morristown-Beard knew it was in for quite a challenge in the final, and it got exactly that and more.
“Morris Knolls really came out flying, and they played until the last whistle, so overall just a really, really good effort from both teams,” Morristown-Beard coach Scott Greene said. “We stuck with it and battled it out. The message to the boys all year was to just gut it out. Every time we play these guys, it’s a gut race. I know some of the scores earlier (in the season) didn’t indicate that, but one game they were winning 1-0, the other we were winning 1-0. They’re a tough team and I’m just proud of the way our guys responded and fought through all the way to the end.”
The opening minutes of the game saw a ton of possession time for Morristown-Beard, but not a whole lot of grade-A scoring opportunities thanks to tight defensive zone coverage by Morris Knolls-Hills. But a fortuitous bounce helped give the Crimson the lead in the first period, as Knolls-Hills netminder Aidan Marvin went to cover up Tristan Long’s shot, but could not corral it, and Berger crashed the net to knock home the rebound, giving his team the advantage with 5:39 to go in the first.
“One of the biggest things that I noticed during the first period was that the goalie was giving up a lot of rebounds,” Berger said. “So we knew we were going to have to battle hard in front of the net, no matter the circumstances. No matter what happened, we knew we’d have to battle hard for everything.”
Morristown-Beard remained in control for the most part until the late part of the second period, when Morris Knolls-Hills started to grow into the game and began to create some opportunities. Knolls-Hills had played a strong game in the defensive zone, and received some timely saves from its sophomore goalie in Marvin (22 saves).
Momentum seemed to be shifting towards Knolls-Hills, but early in the third period, Berger’s backhander from the left circle found its way home, which gave Morristown-Beard a seemingly comfortable two-goal lead.
Any comfort on the side of the Crimson certainly slipped away towards the middle of the period though, when Morris Knolls-Hills went on the power play. It found a way to capitalize, as Andrew Ryan put home the rebound of a Jason Kwestel shot, cutting the deficit and giving new life to the Golden Eagles.
“We stayed out of the penalty box. We said if we have power plays, we have to capitalize on them, and we were 1-for-2,” Morris Knolls-Hills coach Tim Kepler said. “A bad bounce, and that’s the second goal. (Luke) Dickerson hits the crossbar in the beginning of the third. That what it comes down to. The game comes down to bounces. These guys have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hang their heads on. They really wanted it. But that happens every once in awhile.”
Morris Knolls-Hills put Morristown-Beard on its heels for much of the final few minutes of play, but thanks to some key saves from Luke McManus, it didn’t need to worry about overtime. The senior finished with 22 saves in the final game of a strong senior season, which saw him finish with a sparkling .929 save percentage.
“Luke’s been great for us in net all year,” Berger said. “He’s been holding the fort down. We kind of left him out to dry, he had 22 saves tonight, so definitely a great effort from him. Couldn’t have done it without him.”
The final two minutes saw Morristown-Beard control the puck, making it difficult for Knolls-Hills to pull its goalie for the extra attacker. While it eventually was able to, Morristown-Beard’s Cam Fernandez finished it off with an empty net goal with 11 seconds to go, as he finished his senior season as the team’s leading scorer with 23 points (7 g., 16 a.)
“That was great. Whenever you’re a coach, you get a little worried when a guy’s on the opposite side of the red line and goes for the empty net,” Greene said of Fernandez with a laugh. “But he’s a guy I have complete faith in no matter what he’s doing. He played a phenomenal game all around. We have a lot of guys like that who don’t always show up on the score sheet. Usually he does, but every night that kid brings it. His compete level is the highest. He’s such a good leader and we’re certainly going to miss him, but we’re happy that we have a few other Fernadez’s in the program to continue that legacy, because they’re all kind of cut from the same cloth.”
It was an extremely satisfying victory for a Morristown-Beard team which went through more than its share of adversity in 2021. It went through two COVID-19 related shutdowns, first during the preseason, which delayed its season-opening game by a week, and then again in the first week of February.
It also played the entire season without arguably its best player in junior Nick Vantassell, due to a knee injury, and did not play a single game with it’s full lineup, according to Greene.
“We told them that you have to expect the unexpected,” Greene said. “Things are going to happen here that we can’t control, so let’s focus on what we can control and the rest will take care of itself. The fact that we played 11 games- I’m hoping we can play one last game against Princeton on Saturday to give them a senior day- but to even to be able to get to this point. I was nervous up until the puck drop tonight that we wouldn’t be playing. It’s kind of hard to focus on coaching and everything else. But the kids were so good with that.
“To bounce back, take two weeks off and get back into it, they really handled it well. They sacrificed a lot. A lot of our guys weren’t going to their club games, they weren’t going to club practice, they were staying virtual from school, testing twice a week, not going to parties or anything. That’s tough to do for anyone, let alone a bunch of guys in high school. That part of it makes it all the more worth it for us, to finish with a Mennen Cup.”
For Morris Knolls-Hills, Thursday night’s effort was an impressive last stand for a very strong senior class, which will graduate this year with two Public A state championships to their name. The 11-man senior class, highlighted by Jason Kwestel, Andrew Ryan, J.D. Florio, Timmy Kepler, and Dylan Idland, did not get the opportunity to compete for a Public A three-peat this winter due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s a group of seniors whose efforts won’t soon be forgotten- especially by coach Kepler.
“What this senior class has brought back to our program and what they’ve done is tremendous,” Kepler said. “The way that they’ve taken the younger kids and have shown them the way, and showed them what it’s all about and how to conduct themselves on and off the ice, and everything else. I want to say every one of our seniors I coached at some point from the time they were between six and here, I coached them. Whether it was travel, or a middle school thing, or whatever, I’ve kind of watched all these kids grow up. Couldn’t be more proud of them.”
First star: Roman Berger, Morristown-Beard- 2 goals, 1 assist
Second star: Luke McManus, Morristown-Beard- 22 saves
Third star: Aidan Marvin, Morris Knolls-Hills- 22 saves
MB — Roman Berger (Tristan Long) 5:39
MB — Roman Berger (Henry Fernandez) 13:02
MKH — Andrew Ryan (Jason Kwestel) 6:35 PPG
MB — Cam Fernandez (Noah Jones, Roman Berger) 0:11 ENG
Shots on goal: Morristown-Beard 25, Morris Knolls-Hills 23