WEST ORANGE — It’s never easy for Morris Knolls-Hills.
Winning games in dramatic fashion became a calling card for this program during its back-to-back state title runs in 2019 and 2020, winning two postseason overtime games in 2019, before knocking off Montclair in overtime in the 2020 Public A final.
Even this season with many new faces, that continued with an overtime win over Chatham in the Mennen Cup semifinals, followed by scoring three unanswered to beat Woodbridge in the Public C quarterfinals on Monday.
So, as it went into overtime in Thursday’s Public C semifinal against Verona-Glen Ridge after surrendering the game-tying goal and being pinned in its own zone most of the third, there was no panic in the Morris Knolls-Hills locker room during the intermission.
In fact, it was right in its comfort zone.
“We came in here in between the third and overtime, and basically said to them: ‘No sweat here fellas, some of you have been here before when we were down at the Rock against Montclair,” Morris Knolls-Hills coach Tim Kepler said. “We just did it a couple of weeks ago against Chatham. There’s no way we’re leaving here losing, we’re going to find a way to win. God was sitting on our shoulder, but we found a way back, so we’ll take it.”
Kepler’s prophecy was fulfilled 5:22 into overtime, when Ryan Walter’s shot from just above the right circle took a strange bounce and found its way in the back of the net, giving top-seeded Morris Knolls-Hills a 3-2 win over fourth-seeded Verona-Glen Ridge in the NJSIAA Public C semifinals at Codey Arena.
“It’s a big team effort, of course,” Walter said. “Our goalie kept us in it a couple of times- actually a lot of times. It’s not over until it’s over, especially in overtime. One goal wins it, and all it takes is a lucky bounce and that’s what we got, and we’re going to the Rock now.”
Walter added, “We’ve been doing this for a long time. Knolls has a great history with a lot of good teams and good players. Obviously, we’ve been here a couple of times before. Our seniors and juniors have been there before, so I think that really helps with dealing with the pressure.”
Morris Knolls-Hills is heading to its third-consecutive state championship game, after winning the Public A title in 2018-19 and 2019-20. It will take on the winner of the other semifinal between second-seeded Gov. Livingston-New Providence and sixth-seeded Wayne on Monday at 3:30 p.m. at Prudential Center in Newark.
It is going back to the final thanks in large part to its junior goaltender in Aidan Marvin. Morris Knolls-Hills was out-shot, 42-28 for the game, including a 20-8 disadvantage in the third. It went into that final period holding a 2-1 lead thanks to goals from Ryan Manz and Michael Simone, but the push that everyone expected to come from one of the top offenses in the state reared its head in the third period.
Rowan Brennan netted his 54th goal of the season, batting down a Pyotr Sysak shot 5:02 into the third to tie the game up. Marvin was perfect the rest of the way, coming up with several big saves to preserve the tie, including a nearly two-minute stretch at the end of regulation in which Knolls-Hills was pinned in its own zone.
“It’s never easy,” Kepler said. “We had a heck of a performance out of Aidan ‘Money’ Marvin, he was money tonight. He’s the one that kept us in the game. We stopped skating there for a little while, and he held us in it. We found a way. I say it all the time, we’ll find a way, and we found a way.
Marvin added, “It was that we’ve had experience in these overtime games. A lot of us in here have played a couple of overtime games, so we knew that all we needed to do was take a deep breath, relax, and just go play our best hockey.”
The game-winner by Walter was a moment that nobody on the Morris Knolls-Hills side will forget anytime soon.
“I was just so happy. I saw it go in, and I just have a tendency to get weird goals on weird bounces,” Walter, who’s game-winner was just his third of the season, said. “That’s what they’ve all been so far. I just saw it go in and my immediate reaction was just to go to the bench and celebrate.
“I wasn’t really thinking about all the other people there. I was just thinking about how we get to go to the Rock now, and it’s been a place I’ve been. I’m a Devils fan, so I’ve been there a lot, so obviously it’s kind of a dream to play there, so I’m really happy to be going there.”
“For me, it was turn around and wave bye to their student section. That was a little bit cocky of me, but I just wanted to go to my boys because I knew that they poured out for me, and I played my heart out for them. It felt great being in that big huddle at the end of the game.”– Aidan Marvin on his reaction after the game-winning goal.
“It means a lot. We’ve won the last two times in a row, so I’ll be able to go there for a third time in a row which is like almost unprecedented. The fact we were able to keep going like this over and over again, especially after losing a lot of seniors last year, just shows the amount of depth and amount of people work to be on this team, and the amount of heart this team has. A lot of hard work goes into this season, and it’s paid off.” — Ryan Walter on the meaning of getting back to the state final.
“Just tried to shut him down, limit his time and space. He got that second goal off of a great play by him, hitting that puck out of the air. The plan was just to be aware that he was on the ice. We didn’t change our game plan for them, we wanted to play our game. We did a real good job on our forecheck, and I guess the rest is history at this point- for now.” — Morris Knolls-Hills coach Tim Kepler on the plan to contain one of the state’s top scorers in VGR’s Rowan Brennan.
MKH — Ryan Manz 3:43
VGR — Zach Gold 14:53
MKH — Michael Simone (Jack Martinez, Ryan Murcer) 9:22
VGR — Rowan Brennan (Pyotr Sysak) 9:58
MKH — Ryan Walter (Dante Tironi, Luke Dickerson) 9:38
Shots on goal: Verona-Glen Ridge 42, Morris Knolls-Hills 28
Saves: Aidan Marvin (Morris Knolls-Hills) 40, Eli Gottlieb (Verona-Glen Ridge) 25
Team records: Morris Knolls-Hills 16-8-1, Verona-Glen Ridge 21-5-3