NEWARK, NJ — What started out as a nightmare for Sean Murray ended with a dream fulfilled.
The Morris Knolls senior forward, whistle for two earlier penalties against him, atoned by scoring four goals to power second-seeded Morris Knolls/Hills to a 6-1 victory over top-seeded Hillsborough in the NJSIAA Public A title game at Prudential Center in Newark.
“It’s been my dream just to play in this game — let alone win it, let alone score four goals,” an elated Murray said. “This is amazing, it’s a dream. I’m speechless. This is amazing. This is the best day of my life.”
The title marks the Morris County schools’ third in team history and first in five years. The Denville-Rockaway co-op of programs, which merged this season, became the first at-large team to win a state title when it shutout Bridgewater-Raritan in 2014. Morris Knolls also defeated Randolph, 4-1, to stake claim to its first in 2005.
Morris Knolls (14-9-3), which closed out its season on a historic 10-1-2 run dating to Jan. 5, was immediately put at a disadvantage when Murray was called for tripping 34 seconds into the game. Another whistle, 3:02 later, sent Murray back to the box for roughing.
A potentially dangerous situation against a lethal Hillsborough offense that had 165 goals-scored coming into the contest was diffused by only allowing two shots over the course of the back-to-back power plays. While the first period ended scoreless, Murray and his teammates drew inspiration from the situation.
“The first (penalty) I was upset,” Murray recalled. “The second one, I got hit in the chest but I got the call. I just felt that I let my team down and I knew that I had to come back even harder. That next shift, I think, was one of the better shifts that I’ve ever had. The team told me that, and it gave me a lot of confidence. That’s what led to playing this amazing game.”
Emerging unscathed from its earlier misfortune, Morris Knolls went on the offensive and hit the crossbar behind Hillsborough keeper Jason LoRicco with 3:32 left in the period. The Golden Eagles continued to fire away to the tune of a 14-3 edge in shots on goal in the first but both teams skated into the first intermission deadlocked, 0-0.
Coming up empty in the first only lit the fuse in the second as Murray redeemed himself with back-to-back goals 4:04 apart in a three-goal second-period for the Golden Eagles.
Murray gave Morris Knolls a 1-0 lead when he took a centering pass from Jacob Walsh all alone in the crease and cashed in 3:43 into the second period before Walsh set up Murray again with 7:13 left in the second. Gehrig Eckoff extended it to 3-0 just 1:06 later. Andrew Ryan and Robbie Singley assisted on the play.
“We had those penalties right away,” Morris Knolls goalie Ty Franchi, who stood tall with 30 saves, said. “I got my confidence right there, after those first two saves. I knew it was going to be a good night for me. Those saves were big for the rest of the game and they stuck in my head. I was going to keep the puck out.”
Hillsborough (21-7-1) seemingly closed its deficit to 3-1 with 5:47 left in the second period, but the Raiders’ goal was disallowed for high sticking. Just 38 seconds later, Jason Kwestel scored an unassisted backhander — and back-breaker — to put Morris Hills ahead 4-0.
The Raiders were able to finally crack Franchi on Jude Kurtas’ state-leading 57th goal of the season with 1:41 left in the second period, but it seemed too little too late for Hillsborough.
Despite the best of efforts, it remained a 4-1 game until Murray completed the hat trick 11:48 into the third. Walsh set up Murray for the fourth time in the game to ice it with 52 seconds left.
“We got out there in the second period and we really jumped on them,” Walsh said. “We capitalized on our opportunities. We got ahead. We pelted them with shots. We knew in the third period that we were ahead, but we had to play like it was 0-0 and I think everyone did that.
“It’s unbelievable. I never thought this day would come,” Walsh said. “I’m so thankful for all my teammates and coaches.”
“We ran into a buzz-saw here,” Hillsborough coach Chris Tommins said.
“You know, that’s a good team over there. My guys were a little nervous. It’s expected. But they came out, we weathered the storm in the first, we poured it on in the second. I thought we had a chance up until about two minutes left to get some goals and a W. Unfortunately, it is what it is. It’s playoff hockey. I’m super proud of those guys. I couldn’t be prouder.”
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