WEST ORANGE — Playing the underdog role has become somewhat of a norm for Watchung Hills, especially in the state tournament.
After defeating fourth-seeded Hunterdon Central in a shootout then stunning fifth-seeded Livingston in the quarterfinals, the 13th-seeded Warriors pulled off its third upset of the tournament as Matt Piro scored three goals, Zach Lindewirth scored twice and Ryan McHugh made 31 saves as Watchung Hills defeated ninth-seeded Princeton, 6-3, in the semifinals of the NJSIAA/New Jersey Devils Public A State Tournament at Codey Arena in West Orange Thursday night.
Watchung Hills was once again considered to have a puncher’s chance at beating the Tigers and advancing to the state finals for just the second time in school history, but the belief in the Warrior players and coaching staff has not wavered since its first day of practice back in November.
Piro provided his Somerset school the go-ahead goal with 4:53 left in the third period and added an empty-netter to finished with the hat trick as the Warriors knocked off Princeton to book a return engagement to the state finals for the first time since 2008.
“This is absolutely crazy,” Piro said. “Every single time that we go into a game, we read the prediction that writes us off every time. We were supposed to lose to Hunterdon Central, we were supposed to lose to Livingston and we were supposed to lose here to Princeton. We were not supposed to be here, but we are because we work hard and we are a great team.”
Princeton held a 3-2 lead after two periods of play, but 34 seconds into the third Daniel Lee scored to even things up at 3-3 for Watchung Hills (12-6-7) and set the stage for Piro to cement his legacy in Warriors’ history.
Piro took a pass from Lee and buried a shot past Tigers’ goaltender Sawyer Peck to give his team a 4-3 lead and the Warriors added two empty-net goals, including one from Lindewirth, to finish off the victory.
When the final horn sounded, the Watchung Hills’ student section went into an uproar sending it back to the state finals for the first time in eight years.
“We know we have the best forward in Zach Lindewirth, the best defender in Mike Brady and we have the best goalie in the state in Ryan McHugh,” Piro added. “Ryan is always pushing us and getting on us and that drives us. We just have to work because we know we want it and we just have to go get it.”
Princeton (15-4-4) held its head high in the stinging defeat. The Tigers defeated Ridgewood in the opening round of the state tournament before pulling a few upsets of its own in a 3-2 sudden-death victory over eighth-seeded Southern Regional and a 5-2 triumph over top-seeded Morris Knolls in the quarterfinals.
“I told the guys we took the program to the next level,” Princeton coach Terence Miller said. “We’ve never been in this spot before and we had never been to the state semifinals. We went to the county final and came up short there, but these guys really took it to another level this year. You could feel that these guys made a mark. They took it one notch up.”
In a rematch of the 2008 NJSIAA Public A finals, a 1-0 Ridge decision, Watchung Hills will get a crack at redemption and its first state title in school history on Sunday, March 5 when it meets the second-seeded Ridge Red Devils at 6:30 p.m. at Mennen Arena in Morris Township.