NEWARK, NJ — The last time an at-large bid won the state tournament was five years ago when Morris Knolls swept its way to the Public A title.
Now, Chatham is looking to replicate that performance.
The New Jersey Devils welcomed eight state semifinalists to “The Rock” on Friday for a night of celebrating high school hockey in the Garden State as Don Bosco Prep, Hillsborough, Ridge, Summit — and four teams from Morris County: Chatham, Delbarton, Randolph, and once again, Morris Knolls — were treated to a night of hockey as the Devils took on the Philadelphia Flyers at Prudential Center in Newark.
Marking the 22nd year the National Hockey League team has hosted the high school state championships beginning at Continental Airlines Arena in 1998, the number of varsity hockey programs has boomed, increasing from 34 to well over 120.
On Monday, March 5 that number will be whittled down to four state champions when the 2019 NJSIAA/Devils High School State Championship begin with Ridge vs. Randolph in the Public B final at 2 p.m. at Prudential Center. Chatham-Summit (Public C), Morris Knolls-Hillsborough (Public A) and, finally, Delbarton-Don Bosco Prep (Non-Public), will follow suit in 2:15-minute intervals.
Last night, the organization, in association with the NJSIAA and RWJ Barnabas, hosted all eight semifinalists in the Primepoint Lounge as Devils’ Alumni Martin Brodeur, Ken Daneyko and Bruce Driver addressed the teams noting the significance of the moment along with NJSIAA Assistant Director Jack DuBois and RWJ Barnabas Health’s Sr. VP of Corporate External Affairs, Louis LaSalle.
In what is shaping up to be a classic “David vs. Goliath” bout, the marquee matchup pits the No. 2 Delbarton Green Wave, seeking its fourth straight and 14th overall state crown, against the Ironmen of Don Bosco Prep, No. 1 for most of the season in The Hockey Night in Boston Top 10, The Ramsey school, which will go toe-to-toe with its opponent from Morristown for the third straight season, is seeking its first title in the private schools showdown.
“Congratulations to all of you guys who have made it here. As everyone has said, it’s quite an accomplishment to make it this far,” Don Bosco Prep coach Greg Toskos said. “This is our third year in a row. We’ve had a very nice year after having a really great year last year. The state championship last year was a fantastic hockey game, Delbarton had a great battle with us and we expect another great game this time around.
“I was fortunate enough to play in a state championship game in 1994,” Toskos said, referencing Don Bosco Prep’s state final against Christian Brothers Academy that season. “That was special for me and it’s a memory I carry with me to this day — and all of you will as well.”
Don Bosco Prep has won all three meetings against Delbarton this season, including a 5-3 victory over its Gordon Conference rival in the 61st Annual Gordon Cup Final most recently on Feb. 15.
“I’ve been in this room a few times and have enjoyed every minute of it,” Delbarton coach Bruce Shatel said. “To see all the alumni supporting these games that are going to take place is really a great experience.
“I’d like to congratulate everyone in the room. It is a great accomplishment getting to this stage and it is a very difficult road to get here,” Shatel said. “We have a big challenge on our hands Monday night and we’re looking forward to a great game against Don Bosco.”
In 2011, Delbarton, Chatham and Randolph made it a clean sweep for Morris County at the NJSIAA championships. Two years later, in 2013, Delbarton, Chatham and Randolph did it again. This season, Morris Hockey will be aiming for another clean sweep with a team vying for each one of the four state titles on the line.
Whether, Morris Knolls (2), Chatham (2), Randolph (8) and Delbarton (13) can do it all over again remains to be seen, but the representation alone seems to precede itself with 25 state titles amongst them.
“If you look back at the last 15 years, there’s been a Morris County team that’s won the state championship just about every year,” Randolph coach Rich McLaughlin said. “Our league is pretty good. The Morris County League (MCSSIHL) has done very well for itself and I think that says a lot. Teams that play in the Mennen Division are battle-tested and when it comes to state championships I think we’re a leg-up on a lot of teams.”
Morris Knolls was the last team to win a state championship as an at-large in 2014. The Golden Eagles were 9-10-5 at the cutoff for states before ripping off five straight wins to seize its second NJSIAA title. Morris Knolls/Hills will be looking for its third state crown on Monday when it takes on top-seeded Hillsborough, looking for its first.
“I think it speaks a lot for the strength of the Mennen Division,” Morris Knolls’ coach Tim Kepler said. “We were fortunate to be here and win it as an at-large team in 2014. If we don’t play in those tough games, night-in and night-out, we’re not here.”
Hillsborough, which has won five of its last six, is making its state-final debut. The Raiders advanced to the state quarterfinals in 2007 and then again back-to-back in 2010 and 2011, but this is uncharted territory for the Somerset County school.
Behind Jude Kurtas, the state’s leading scorer in goals (56) and points (111), Hillsborough is aiming to become the second straight Skyland Conference team to win it all after Hunterdon Central prevailed in 2018.
Ridge waited nine years in between titles, winning in 2008 before coming back and capturing its second title in school history in 2017. The Red Devils seem to take it to the next level at this stage of the season.
In a rematch of the 2018 NJSIAA Public C title bout, Summit and Chatham once again lock horns in the state final. The Hilltoppers are aiming to bring its third title back to Union County after also prevailing in 2012. The Cougars, as previously mentioned, are looking to become the second at-large team to hoist the NJSIAA trophy.
“It’s unbelievable,” Chatham coach Brendon Herr said. “We struggled early this year with injuries, bit finally got healthy and worked our way back to .500 there. The more we got healthy, the more we started to win games and the more confidence we had in this group. Give our goaltender (Zachary Pendergrast) all the credit in the world. He’s played unbelievable. Not it’s time to get back to work.”
In their one and only meeting with Summit during the regular season, the Hilltoppers prevailed, 5-1, back in December. But that was before the Cougars were at full strength.
Chatham, 9-1-1 in their last 11 games, is hoping to be one of four Morris County teams to hoist the state title at the end of the day.
“First and foremost, it’s one of the best counties of hockey in New Jersey — that’s credit to all the good coaches who coach these teams and how they develop their players,” Herr said referencing Morris’ representation at the state finals. “Even some of the better players who graduate stick around and play hockey. It’s a credit to them. It’s good to know Morris County continues to develop players. They’re going on to prep school, commit to college and that looks good on Morris County.”
The Cougars won the Public B title with Harvey Cohen in 2011, then with Frank Gilberti in 2013. Herr is looking to become the third different coach to lead Chatham toth the promised land.
“Same message — for us, we play a simple game. When we can hop on opportunities we will, just play a very strong defensive game,” Herr said. “Our concept is good defense leads to great offense.”
STATE FINALS SCHEDULE || BRACKETS
2-Ridge (18-7-3) vs. 1-Randolph (21-4-2) Public B Final, 2 p.m.
6-Chatham (14-11-2) vs. 4-Summit (19-6-1) Public C Final, 4:15 p.m.
2-Morris Knolls (10-9-3) vs. 1-Hillsborough (21-6-1) Public A Final, 6:30 p.m.
2-Delbarton (19-6-4) vs. 1-Don Bosco Prep (26-1) Non-Public Final, 8:45 p.m.
Related: Don Bosco Prep Captures Gordon Cup
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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