MORRIS TOWNSHIP — Since Ridge won its very first state title in program history back in 2008, the Somerset County school has had to deal with heartbreak time and time again, including defeats in the semifinals each of the last two seasons.
The Red Devils did not want to see that trend continue for the third straight year and made it back to the promised land with a semifinal victory over Randolph last week to set up their date with destiny against Watchung Hills.
After a scoreless first period, junior Connor Villa and senior John Vilade each connected in the second frame as second-seeded Ridge built a two-goal lead before holding off a late surge from 13th-seeded Watchung Hills in the third to fashion a 2-1 victory for its first NJSIAA Public A state championship in nine years.
“We had great motivation tonight, got a lot of encouraging words during the week from former players back on the championship team from 2008,” said Villa. “This is every kid’s dream. Watching Ridge go to the semifinals as a little kid and then coming out here and making it happen — it’s very heartwarming. I’m speechless right now.”
Ridge and Watchung Hills have been very familiar with one another throughout this season. The two Skyland Conference schools met twice this season resulting in a 3-3 tie in December before the Red Devils defeated the Warriors, 2-0, in its second meeting in January.
It was 13th-seeded Watchung Hills that looked to take the early 1-0 lead in second period when a puck was lying loose in front of the net and appeared to eventually cross the line, but the referees ruled that the net came off before the puck trickled in.
That swung the momentum of the game around and moments later senior defenseman Brett Carey intercepted a puck in the Ridge defensive zone and fed a perfect outlet pass to Villa who took off on a breakaway before drilling a shot past Hills’ goalie Ryan McHugh for the 1-0 lead.
“They tried to dump it in and I just intercepted it and that was a play that we usually run in practice,” Carey said. “I saw Connor stretching over the red line and I kind of led him and it wound up being a perfect pass right into the breakaway.”
With five minutes remaining in the second, Ridge was able to increase its lead to 2-0 when Jack Mandala fed a pass into the corner for Vilade who ripped a shot past McHugh for the eventual dagger in the Warriors’ heart.
“This is amazing. I’m just speechless right now,” Vilade said. “It’s such a great group of guys and this team and we had such a great season and it makes it so special right now to accomplish what we set out to do.”
“McHugh is a great goalie and we have faced him before and there just aren’t many ways to beat him. We were able to get some traffic in front of the net tonight and I think that’s what the difference maker was.”
Watchung Hills made things interesting down the stretch in the final frame when senior Matt Piro found an opening scored with 6:23 left to cut the deficit to 2-1.
The Warriors had one last attempt in them to try and force overtime.
After an icing by Ridge with 6.3 seconds remaining in regulation, Watchung Hills won the face-off and fired two shots on net, but Red Devils’ goaltender Chris Ambrozy made the first stop and a second attempt was blocked as the final horn sounded.
“Matt’s goal lifted the spirits on the bench and gave us a little glimmer of hope,” Watchung Hills’ coach Anthony Criscitello. “We told the guys that it just takes one shot and one shot could have tied the game and we came up a little short. The kids played hard and I’m proud of what they were able to do.”
2nd: Ridge: Connor Villa (Brett Carey) 12:30
2nd: Ridge: John Vilade (Jack Mandala) 4:44
3rd: Watchung Hills: Matt Piro (Michael Brady, Zach Lindewirth) 6:23
Ridge: Chris Ambrozy, 24 saves
Watchung Hills: Ryan McHugh, 18 saves
Written by Chris Costa/HockeyClan