By Mike Gurnis
What a difference a year makes.
The 2020-21 season saw West Morris endure a 0-14-1 campaign, and with most of that team returning, it was reasonable to expect improvement this season. The question, of course, was how much of a jump it would make.
With the additions of freshmen Ben Barnhill and Ben Willmott, West Morris has gotten an extra boost of firepower to an already up-and-coming group. It has put together a dramatic turnaround, now at 13-5-1 after a dominant 10-3 win over third-seeded Vernon in the Haas Cup semifinals.
Willmott recorded five goals for the second-seeded Wolfpack, while Barnhill had a hat trick of his own. Willmott has 22 goals and 17 assists on the season for a team-high 39 points, with Barnhill tallying 15 goals and nine assists.
“There was a hunger that the boys brought in from last year,” West Morris coach Phil Togno said. “They kept developing last year, they were real patient and believed in me. Then when you add two freshmen like Ben Willmott and Ben Barnhill, that does nothing but a giant boost in the arm for the entire team.”
The win came just three days after West Morris suffered a tough, 5-4 loss to this same Vernon team in a game which Vernon needed just to qualify for this tournament. West Morris, however, came out firing in this one, building a 4-2 lead through two periods before erupting for six goals in the third to put it away.
“I think just being consistent and focused,” Willmott said. “Last game we were a little sort of nervous going into that big game, but tonight we were really focused, on point, and didn’t miss a beat. We were just consistent the whole way through and just supporting each other the whole way.”
The win punched West Morris’ ticket to the Haas Cup final, and is in search of its first Cup title since 2010-11 when it was co-champions with Park Regional. It last played in a final in 2017-18 when it lost to Madison in the Halvorsen Cup final.
“We’re feeling great,” Willmott said. “It’s just electric in (the locker room). We’ve got one more to go and we’re really excited and ready to hopefully win a Haas Cup.”
HIGH POINT-WALLKILL VALLEY-KITTATINNY MAKES HISTORY
Last season, the High Point-Wallkill Valley co-op saw its season end in disappointing fashion, with a 5-1 loss as the second seed to Bernards-Somerville-Middlesex in the Charette Cup first round.
The program, which added Kittatinny to the fold this season, was determined to not suffer that same fate on Thursday. It scored three unanswered goals after falling behind in the first period, as third-seeded High Point-Wallkill-Kittatinny upended second-seeded Newton-Lenape Valley, 3-1 in the Charette Cup semifinals.
It will be the first Cup final appearance in program history for this program.
“As a senior it feels great, because last year we had high hopes and we played BSM and we had a bad game in the first round,” senior Luca Carnemolla said. “So going into this year, we’ll see who we’re playing but we’re excited to go play in the final, so it means a lot.”
Newton-Lenape Valley led, 1-0 on Matthew Murphy’s goal in the first period. But Carnemolla tied it up with a shorthanded goal in the second period, before Sebastian Hamarcak’s shot from the point found its way through traffic to give High Point the lead with 10:40 to go in the game.
Hamarcak, a transfer from Pope John who just recently joined the team, recorded his first career goal which proved to be the game-winner. Gordon Shindelman, who had two assists, buried the empty-net shorthanded goal with 11 seconds left to seal it.
“We went down 1-0, and at some point they were out-shooting us, but everyone on the bench had a good mentality,” Carnemolla said. “We needed to get out there, push ourselves for the 45 seconds or a minute that we’re out there, get back to the bench, get water, get back out there and keep getting those loose pucks, keep getting bodies on, and that’s what we did and we ended up winning the game. We played a full 45-minute game and that’s what helped us win.”
High Point goalie Tyler Boffa stopped 20 of 21 shots to secure the victory. Now, the program will look towards its first Cup final appearance, after turning the tables on a Newton-Lenape Valley team which it had tied and lost to in its prior meetings this year.
“I have a lot of friends at NLV and I know the coach,” Carnemolla said. “We tied them, we lost to them, they won the Sussex Cup, so we all wanted to come here and prove them wrong. They beat us and we tied once, so we wanted to come and win and show them what’s up.”
MENDHAM LOOKS TO RECLAIM HALVORSEN CUP
Coming off back-to-back titles in the Haas and Halvorsen Cups, respectively, Mendham had its sights set on another championship last winter.
But the day before the Halvorsen Cup was set to begin, Mendham had to drop out of the tournament due to COVID-19 issues. For Mendham’s now-senior class, it still considers itself to be the reigning champions after not being able to participate last year, and will look to win the Cup back after the second-seeded Minutemen topped third-seeded Mountain Lakes-Boonton, 6-2 in the Halvorsen Cup semifinal at Mennen Arena.
“Our senior class, we won the Haas our freshman year, Halvorsen our sophomore year,” senior Gavin Marshuetz said. “That really hurt when our opportunity our junior year was taken away due to COVID. We think we’re still the reigning champs and we’re coming for that title this year.”
Mendham got strong performances across the board, led by Tristan Aikenhead’s two-goal, one-assist performance. Liam Lloyd had a goal and two assists, Blake Stevens contributed a goal and an assist, while Ian Tamboowalla and Marshuetz each scored a goal. Griffin Jozefek and Mac Goggin each dished out two assists, while Gavin Thrun stopped 17 of 19 shots in the win.
The win came just a few weeks after Mendham was upset by Mountain Lakes-Boonton, 2-1 on Jan. 20. The Minutemen were determined to not suffer that same fate again on Thursday.
“I think the boys just came ready today,” Goggin, a junior defenseman said. “They wanted to win. We came out slow two weeks ago or whenever it was, and everyone was just making sloppy plays out there. Today everyone come out hard, came to the rink focused and ready to win and that’s exactly what we did. We outplayed them in every aspect of the game, and we came out with the win.”
Goggin also had the task of containing Mountain Lakes-Boonton forward Aiden Reidy, one of the more dynamic players in the area. His play helped limit the Lakers to just two goals in this game.
“He’s a fast player, he’s got good hands, and he likes to shoot the puck,” Goggin said of Reidy. “So really just standing right next to him the entire game, I think I can match his speed really easily. So it was just a matter of staying next to him the whole game and not letting him get that extra step.”
Now, Mendham’s senior class has its sights set on Wednesday’s Halvorsen Cup final, where it will face the winner of top-seeded Morristown and fourth-seeded KJS United. It came into this week on a four-game losing streak, and picked up a resounding 8-1 win over KJS United on Monday before downing Mountain Lakes on Thursday in the Cup tournament. It hopes that strong level of play can carry it to a title.
“I think our biggest key is to just work as a team and not be one-on-one players,” Aikenhead said. “We have to trust our teammates. We know our teammates can make the plays, we know our line mates can make the plays. We’re skating now and I think we have a good chance at a title.”