The realization is beginning to sink in for Greg Moller.
The Summit senior defenseman remembers skating in the championship for the Union County Cup four years ago as an inexperienced freshman. Now, he understands his hockey career has moved as briskly as some of the swift-moving forwards he defends.
“It feels like just yesterday I was a freshman skating out there in the Cup final,” Moller acknowledged outside his club’s locker room after a recent battle against Ridge. “And now, I’m already a senior. It’s true but you just can’t take these games for granted, especially a Cup final. Your high school career goes by so fast. It’s pretty crazy how fast the time goes.”
For Moller and his Summit teammates, though, the time couldn’t have come fast enough for the 2019 Union County Tournament championship, the 11th annual.
After suffering a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Westfield in last year’s final, top-seeded Summit will get a chance to avenge that setback when the two rivals face-off again for the championship Saturday at 4 p.m. at Warinanco Rink in Roselle.
The final was originally slated for Jan. 19 but was postponed due to severe expected weather.
Now, the wait is over for both clubs.
Second-seeded Westfield (13-4-3), which edged Gov. Livingston, 5-4, on Will Gamba’s overtime goal in the first round of the McInnis Cup on Thursday, rallied in the third period from a 2-1 deficit before Trevor Tannela struck on a breakaway with 2:41 remaining in the 2018 final to give the Blue Devils their second UCT Cup. It marked the second time Westfield has topped Summit in the UCT championship in as many tries.
Of course, C.J. Duffy also had a hand in the glory last season for Westfield as was magnificent in making 32 saves in the victory, earning Tournament MVP and HockeyClan honors.
Duffy, a senior, and his teammates are certainly prepared to defend their title after the long delay in the match.
“The anticipation has definitely built up,” said the senior, who boasts a .920 save-percentage. “Both teams were disappointed it got postponed but since then every practice we’ve had Summit on our minds. This game is huge. Winning it and defending our title would be big for our program.”
Westfield has relied on Duffy, a strong blue line with juniors Dylan Howard (1-13-14) and Will Gamba (4-5-9), and balanced scoring up front with senior forwards John Humiston (12-5-17), Anthony Oliveri (11-5-16) and Alex Park (6-9-15); Tanella (5-7-12), a junior; and freshman Thomas Conrod (3-11-14).
Perhaps more than this time than last year Westfield needs to withstand a first period onslaught that will surely come from the motivated Hilltoppers.
“I think we put up a good fight and kind of shocked them last year,” said Westfield coach Joe Bertucci. “Summit is a great team and you know they will be up and ready to go this time. They have one of the best top lines in the state and a lot of depth. We have to move the puck out of our end quickly and can’t allow them to spend time in our zone. For us C.J. (Duffy) is the backbone of this team. We rely on him and he embraces that role. He’s been outstanding this year again. The other key for us is not taking penalties. Summit’s power play is lethal.”
Summit, which defeated Westfield 6-0 in the 2017 UCT title game, is making its 10th appearance in the UCT final and looking for its seventh crown. As was the case last season Summit defeated Westfield in both regular-season matches before the two squared off in the final.
Johnson and Cranford have also earned one Union County Cup apiece.
“Everyone will be fired up,” said Moller, who has three goals and eight assists this winter. “Last year’s loss in the final was definitely a tough pill to swallow. We will come ready to play and be prepared to skate as hard as we can. The game is definitely important, especially as a senior. Westfield is one of our biggest rivals and it’s always special to play against them.”
Summit (14-5-1) comes off a 3-1 loss to Ridge last Tuesday, a setback that snapped its five-game unbeaten streak (4-0-1).
The Hilltoppers prolific offense is keyed by the dynamic top line boasting senior Charlie Collins (11-8-19), junior Tom Pryymak (19-23-42) and sophomore Greg Spitznagel (17-13-30). Senior Luke Radice (3-11-14), junior Jake Puskar (14-16-30) and freshman Chris Magovern have added potent scoring. Junior defenseman Spencer Myers has helped anchor the back end along with Moller in front of freshman goalie Grant McCormack (.936 save-percentage).
Summit coach Keith Nixon knows the setback last season combined with the rivalry will provide plenty of motivation for his club.
“Nobody in a maroon uniform wants to go out losing to Westfield,” said Nixon, who boasts a 344-238-51 record in 25 seasons. “It was a bitter loss last year, and it was especially tough on our seniors. We feel like we should win the UCT every year and it’s a goal for us every year. This is our 10th straight trip to the final. Westfield has played very well all season and had a really good finish in the division. Hey, it’s Westfield and Summit. It’s a huge rivalry and you never know what’s going to happen. It should be a great game Saturday.”
Written by Paul Bruno / @PaulBrunoHS
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