MORRIS TOWNSHIP — Finally healthy and with a full lineup for the first time all year, Northern Highlands is alive and well and inflicting damage on the opposition this post-season.
Back in action, senior Jin Lee scored three goals and assisted on two more while Aidan Connolly, James Cerepak and Jack Sparago also found the back of the net as second-seeded Northern Highlands booked its first-ever trip to the state finals with a 6-1 victory over 11th-seeded Princeton in the semifinals of the NJSIAA Public B Tournament at Mennen Arena in Morris Township.
Lee scored twice in the first period before completing the hat trick on the power play 4:17 into the third period as Northern Highlands flashed its offensive prowess throughout, out-shooting Princeton 23-14 in the game, including 8-1 in the final frame.
“I’m just trying to get the win ya know? That’s all,” Lee, with 15 goals and 32 points this season, said. “It’s been a goal all year really to get to “The Rock” and win the game. We want rings.”
“I know he didn’t play a full season and doesn’t have the stats of everybody else we’ve seen but the guy is a dominant force and he can take over games,” Northern Highlands coach Jason Beswick said. “In my opinion, the most talented kid to ever put on a Highlands jersey. He carried the team in a key state semifinal game. He’s the best of the best.”
After taking two previous teams to the brink before falling in the state semifinals, Beswick says this team is the most offensively gifted group he’s had in 15 years behind the bench.
And now, his Highlanders will look become the first state champion in school history when it takes on Randolph in the Public B finale set for March 5 at Prudential Center in Newark.
“This is absolutely the most talented team that we’ve had and we’ve fought injuries all year,” Beswick said. “With (Joe) Konvit and Cerepak and (Henry) Riccitelli, the very first time we had a full lineup was the first state game against Passaic Valley. So I think we’re seeing now the fruits of persevering through tough times all season long.”
After Lee sent Northern Highlands into the first intermission with a 2-0 lead, Cerepak added fuel to the fire 1:13 into the second. Sparago made it 4-0 6:43 later before Connolly turned it into a full-blown blaze with his shorthanded goal with 2:40 remaining in the second period.
“Anytime you can get a goal early on, it gets the boys going a little bit — it’s nice,” Lee said. “It’s very nice to have everybody on the ice, to be able to rely on other guys to take some of the load… it came at a good time.”
Senior captain Joe Konvit, the New Jersey Devils State Player of the Month for January, says the reinforcements have arrived at just the right time this season.
“Throughout the season we’ve been diseased with injuries,” Konvit, the team’s leading scorer with 45 points, said. “I’m just so happy we have all the boys ready to go. We’re all hyped.”
Keith Goldberg put Princeton on the board 12 seconds after Connolly’s shorty but it was too little too late for the Little Tigers, which upset sixth-seeded Middletown North and third-seeded Ridge to reach the semifinals.
“I think we definitely made a deep run upsetting the sixth and third,” Princeton defenseman Max Garlock, who assisted on the goal, said. “But we didn’t play to the best of our ability in this game. Looking back, we definitely had a hell of a season and we should be proud of it but this one is going to sting for a while.”
Princeton’s “Cinderella Season” ends at 18-9-2.
Northern Highlands, meanwhile, is setting its sights on the prize at Prudential standing 21-5-1.
“Just a great group of kids, a very talented group and I think they’re determined to give Randolph the best we can,” Beswick said. “I know they’re a talented team and a perennial powerhouse but we’ll give it a roll and be ready for them for sure.”
“We just have to come prepared,” Lee added. “We’ve got to do whatever it takes to win. We know they’re a well-coached team. We know they work well together. We’ve got to do the same thing and just outwork them. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: Northern Highlands goalie John Werber makes a stick save on Princeton’s Aidan Trainor (16). Northern Highlands defeated Princeton, 6-1, in the NJSIAA Public B semifinals at Mennen Arena in Morris Township in Feb. 28, 2018. (Tom Smith/TSPImages)
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