Two years of heartbreak turned into euphoria for Mount Olive-Hopatcong-Hackettstown on Tuesday night.
Mo-Ho-Ha’s 12-player senior class had been knocking on the door the past two seasons, as it lost in overtime to Mountain Lakes-Boonton in 2021 before losing to West Morris by a goal in the 2022 Haas Cup final.
A move up to the Halvorsen Division, coupled with the loss of Nicholas Cioce to club hockey further added to the challenge of finally getting over the hump.
But all of that adversity was put firmly in the rear view mirror on Tuesday night, when second-seeded Mount Olive-Hopatcong-Hackettstown rolled to a 5-1 win over top-seeded KJS United in the 16th Halvorsen Cup final at Mennen Arena.
Despite moving up a division this season, the expectation of a Cup title remained the same.
“I think they were just presented with a challenge at the beginning of the season and they understood what the expectation was coming in,” Mo-Ho-Ha coach Ryan Tatarka said. “Every single day they’ve come to work and everything has been for this moment. They took advantage of their opportunity today. We came out fast, we came out physical, we came out smart and the scoreboard says our goal. We flipped the switch at the right time.”
Senior Frank Diloreto finished with a hat trick and an assist, including two goals in the opening 3:18 to put his team ahead. This was a KJS team that had gone a perfect 8-0 in Halvorsen Division play this season, including wins of 4-1 and 5-3 over Mo-Ho-Ha in early January.
Getting out to that quick start was paramount, and doing so allowed Mo-Ho-Ha to dictate the tempo for the remainder of the game.
“After losing two in the Haas the last two years, we definitely had a chip on our shoulder as a lot of us would say,” Diloreto, who recorded the first hat trick of his career, said. “We knew we had to come into this game strong and had to come fast and that’s absolutely what we did. I couldn’t be happier. We finally got it.”
Diloreto’s line, which included J.L. O’Toole and Liam Murphy was dominant when it was on the ice. It was involved in all five of the team’s goals, as Murphy also had a goal and two assists, while O’Toole chipped in with an empty net goal and an assist.
Diloreto of the hat trick, “Somehow it happened. Someone was looking after me today. I have to shout out to my boys, though. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
It ended up out-shooting KJS United 36-22. It applied a ton of pressure in the offensive zone, making KJS’ standout goalie in Rylan Gibbons face a lot of shots. The defensemen, led by the top pairing of Braden Ensinger and Ryan Twist, continued their strong play in this tournament and never allowed the opposition to gain much traction.
It was too little, too late for KJS when Dillon Fleksher put home a rebound on the power play with 5:12 left to cut the deficit to 4-1. That was the only goal Mo-Ho-Ha allowed in the two games of this tournament, as goalie Nick Gargiulo stopped 48 of 49 shots in the Halvorsen Cup.
“Compared to the rest of the season, I think this is the best defensive two games they’ve played,” Gargiulo said of his defense. “I don’t want to put a fence on them, but this is definitely a step up from what it’s been. I’ve had some tough moments where it’s been tough, but the defense played good.”
Mo-Ho-Ha went through ups and downs throughout the season, but never lost sight of the end goal. It may have an unimpressive record at 10-10-1, but that’s also due to the fact that it went out and challenged itself by playing a strong out-of-conference schedule, which included the likes of Mahwah, Ridge, Glen Rock, and Verona-Glen Ridge.
“We’ve played tougher opponents this year that have prepared us for the opportunity,” Tatarka said. “Even though our record isn’t where people would say we should be, we’ve played top teams in the state and we’ve played them tough. We’ve been able to keep our system and keep with our process. We have been results-oriented and we knew if we play our game more often than not we’ll get our way.”
That all helped prepare this group for this championship moment. It will hope to carry this into the state tournament, where as the 25th-seed, it will take on eighth-seeded Toms River South-East in the first round. Mo-Ho-Ha needed an at-large bid to qualify as it did not finish in the top 24 for power points in Public C.
Nonetheless, the 12-person senior class will get one more chance to make a run, already with a Halvorsen Cup trophy in hand.
“I just want to play more hockey,” Gargiulo said. “Win or lose I just want to play hockey. So I’ll have fun either way, as long as I play good.”
MO — Frank Diloreto (J.L. O’Toole, Liam Murphy) 14:33
MO — Frank Diloreto (Liam Murphy) 11:42
MO — Liam Murphy (Frank Diloreto, Tyler Muscolino) 0:50
MO — Frank Diloreto (Liam Parr) 10:33
KJS — Dillon Fleksher (Anthony Prunty, Jake Piorier) 5:12 PPG
MO — J.L. O’Toole 0:12 ENG
Shots on goal: Mount Olive-Hopatcong-Hackettstown 36, KJS United 22
E-mail Mike Gurnis at firstname.lastname@example.org
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