By Mike Gurnis
NEWARK — It just wasn’t meant to be for Morris Knolls-Hills this time around.
After winning back-to-back Public A titles in 2019 and 2020, it found itself just one win away from a three-peat performance. As many dramatic games as this team has pulled out during that run, it ultimately fell short on Monday, as top-seeded Morris Knolls-Hills lost, 2-0 to second-seeded Gov. Livingston-New Providence in the Public C final at Prudential Center.
Phillip Koutsaftes scored with 5:24 left in the first period for what proved to be the game-winner for Gov. Livingston-New Providence. It was held off the scoreboard the rest of the way, although it wasn’t for lack of opportunities.
It had perhaps its best opportunity to get on the board in the final seconds of the game, when a scramble in front of Gov. Livingston goalie Shane Cook broke out. The puck bounced around and was loose for several seconds, but Gov. Livingston was able to get a clear, and Alec Nasreddine sealed it with an empty-netter with one second left to play.
It appeared on the final play that a Gov. Livingston may have covered the puck with his hand, which could have potentially meant a penalty shot.
“From where we saw, that’s what we saw with him in the crease covering the puck up and pulling it under him and then throwing it back out,” Morris Knolls-Hills coach Tim Kepler said. “But you know, the refs can only call what they see. That’s what we saw, that’s what our players saw on the ice, too. It happens that way sometimes.”
That sequence was a tough way for the season to end for Morris Knolls-Hills after its run to get here, which included an overtime win over Verona-Glen Ridge on Thursday in the semifinals.
“They have nothing to be disappointed in,” Kepler said. “They left it all out there. Sometimes, when you leave it all out there, you end up losing. We tell them all time, you end up failing more in life than you succeed. But you’ve got to get up the next morning and put your pants back on and get going. You have to hand it to Gov. Livingston, Mike (Criscitello) has built a great program over there. Those kids worked their butt off. I’m proud for them, too.”
There is still much to look forward to for Morris Knolls-Hills, which in many ways overachieved this season after graduating the bulk of its team that won those back-to-back state titles. It still stayed on course despite having a young team, which was led by impressive sophomores in Luke Dickerson, Jack Martinez, Bryan McCarter, and freshman Jake McCloud.
“When you come into a season, you have expectations for them, right,” Kepler said. “Our expectation is always winning the Mennen Cup and the state championship. Those are always our expectations, those are our goals. A lot of these players think that and believe that. We had a lot of younger players step into roles that graduated last year. They did a great job with that. They worked their butts off every day in practice, in the film room. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
GL — Phillip Koutsaftes (Brian Kramer, Alec Nasreddine) 5:24
GL — Alec Nasreddine 0:01 ENG
Shots on goal: Morris Knolls-Hills 29, Gov. Livingston-New Providence 26
Saves: Aidan Marvin (Morris Knolls-Hills) 24, Shane Cook (Gov. Livingston) 29
Team records: Morris Knolls-Hills 16-9-1, Gov. Livingston-New Providence 18-6-1