By Mike Gurnis
A.J. Twist ran toward the locker room and couldn’t contain his excitement.
The Mount Olive-Hopatcong-Hackettstown senior screamed at the top of his lungs, “We’re going back, baby!”
After reaching a Cup final for the third year in a row, it’s hard to blame him. Now, the goal will be on getting over the hump after losses in its last two finals appearances.
Second-seeded Mount Olive-Hopatcong-Hackettstown put on a defensive clinic, as it shut out third-seeded Mendham, 3-0 in the Halvorsen Cup semifinals at Mennen Arena.
The win books Mo-Ho-Ha’s spot in Tuesday’s Halvorsen Cup final, where it will take on the winner of tomorrow’s game between top-seeded KJS United and fourth-seeded Madison. It lost in the Haas Cup final the past two seasons before moving up to the Halvorsen this season.
“It’s everything. We work really hard every day,” Twist said. “You look around our locker room, and we all give it all. Just to see all of our hard work come to fruition this year. You can listen to them (in the locker room), it’s awesome. A lot of seniors here. Two years haven’t gone the way we wanted them, but you can’t ask for anything more than to put us back in this position. It’s awesome.”
Twist finished with a goal and an assist, while teammate Ethan Tillery- a senior with just two goals to his name this season coming in- doubled his goal total with two goals in this one.
Twist assisted on Tillery’s opening goal 7:58 into the game, when he dropped a pass back to Tillery who fired one home to put his team in the lead.
“I took a great nap before the game,” Tillery said. “I felt very motivated. When I got here, the boys were loving me up. It just got in my head. We had someone come and talk to us, and it really touched us, and I wanted to play for him and his passing, so it meant the world to us. I’m very happy that we won this and we’re going to the cup.”
That someone was Dr. Bruce Murphy, the President of Centenary University, who’s wife Jeanne, passed away from injuries in a hit-and-run crash on Jan. 7. He spoke to the team before the game, and the team wore shirts under their jerseys to bring awareness to victims of hit-and-run tragedies.
Twist added to the lead midway through the second period when he deflected home a point shot from Christian Hertzig on the power play to give his squad a 2-0 lead.
The rest of the way, Mo-Ho-Ha’s defense did the rest. The defensemen, highlighted by Braden Ensinger, Ryan Twist, and Liam Parr- among others- allowed few high-danger looks in the defensive zone in front of goalie Nick Gargiulo (27 saves).
Up front, the forwards played a role in that as well with an aggressive forecheck which gave Mendham problems in breaking out.
Even with the dynamic forwards Mendham has, such as Ian Tamboowalla and Blake Stevens, it was unable to solve Mo-Ho-Ha’s clinical defensive performance.
“They have some guys who can definitely wheel, for sure,” Twist said. “We just wanted to stay true to our defense. We knew that pucks in deep were going to get things going. When you pressure the defense, good things happen.”
Tillery added, “I think we played the body, played the stick. We have to give it to Gargiulo, our goalie- he kept us in it at a lot of points. He (faced) a lot of shots on net. I have to give it to him.”
Gargiulo came up with some big saves in the third period, and Mendham was unable to mount the comeback it needed. Tillery sealed it with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
Now, it has its sights set on winning the ever-elusive cup trophy. It didn’t just lose in Cup finals the past two years, it lost in heartbreaking fashion, with a 3-2 overtime loss to Mountain Lakes-Boonton in 2021 followed by a 2-1 loss to West Morris in 2022. While it is in a new division this season, getting to- and winning- a championship game has been the goal since the start of the season.
“It’s awesome,” Twist said. “Losing two years makes us better. We’re really serendipitous in what we want to do. You can’t win it if you’re not in the game. I’m extremely excited.”
Tillery added, “We’ve been wanting this since day one of the season. We’ve been hustling, hustling, hustling. Every day in the morning, during dry land, everything…we just came to play. We want to play and we want to be cup winners.”
MO — Ethan Tillery (A.J. Twist) 7:02
MO — A.J. Twist (Christian Hertzig, Liam Murphy) PPG 8:14
MO — Ethan Tillery ENG 0:42
Shots on goal: Mendham 27, Mount Olive-Hopatcong-Hackettstown 25
E-mail Mike Gurnis at firstname.lastname@example.org
Donate to the Morris-Sussex Hockey Report via GoFundMe: https://gofund.me/7478f834