Morris Knolls wins the 2024 NJSIAA North Co-op Sectional title
Morris Knolls upset top seeded Tenafly to advance to the 2024 Public Co-op State Championship. (Photo by David Siegrist - JSN)

Four Sectional Final games took place on Thursday night as eight schools squared off in hopes of making it to the Prudential Center on Monday. Let's dive into a recap of each game:

Randolph vs Northern Highlands

The Randolph Rams came into the game flying high off a come-from-behind win against Ridgewood just two days prior. Northern Highlands rode into Mennen off a 5-1 victory over Chatham, giving us an electric matchup in the North.

Northern Highlands ice hockey

Northern Highlands wins the 2024 NJSIAA North Jersey Public Sectional Championship. (Photo by Shaquan Woody - JSN)

Both schools are at the top of the list when it comes to high-powered offense, and it showed right away in the 1st period. Shane Melly put the Rams on the board just over a minute into the game with an unassisted goal that immediately put the Highlanders on their heels. 

From then on, the Highlanders took complete control of the game, starting with Vincenzo Capano. The Senior Forward netted two goals in 5 minutes to put Northern Highlands in front, 2-1. The Highlanders went on to score six straight goals en route to an 8-2 win, knocking Randolph out of the state tournament. 

Capano finished the night with four of the eight goals. Brent Beswick had a hat-trick, and Matt Gershengorn also found the back of the net. The Highlanders will now take on Manalapan Monday night at “The Rock.” 

Morris Knolls vs Tenafly

The Morris Knolls-Hills Golden Eagles were the lowest seed heading into the Sectional State Finals. But Knolls rode high after a massive win against KJS United on Tuesday. The Golden Eagles scored five goals against the United, and all five were by star Senior Forward Luke Dickerson. 

Top-seeded Tenafly entered Thursday night's game coming off a dominant 5-0 win over West Milford. The Tigers quickly jumped on top when Vlad Meleznick deflected a shot home for the early 1-0 lead less than five minutes into the game. 

Down 1-0 that quickly to a top seed would rattle any team, but this 6th-seeded Knolls team had other plans. Down by a goal, the Golden Eagles didn’t fall back and defend; they attacked, and boy, it paid off. Jack Martinez, Brandon Strunck, and Luke Dickerson scored 3-straight goals for Knolls-Hills, launching them into the lead 3-1. The Tigers quickly responded, however, when Troy Knausse found the back of the net just 23 seconds later. 

On to the 3rd period, we went with 6th-seeded Morris Knolls clinging to a 3-2 lead against the top-ranked Co-Op team in the state. Midway through the period, it was none else but Luke Dickerson who took over the game. Dickerson buried a goal with 7:18 left in the game to put the Golden Eagles up 5-2.

Luke put the game away four minutes later, finding the back of the net off a beautiful feed from Junior Jake McCloud. Aiden Marvel tied a bow on the night, scoring with just six seconds left, and Morris Knolls-Hills pulled off the upset of the year 6-2. 

On Monday, the Golden Eagles head to Newark, where they will take on Governor Livingston for the Co-Op State Finals. 

Manalapan vs Westfield

The public south sectional final game saw the top-seeded Westfield Blue Devils take on the three-seeded Manalapan Braves. Thursday's game was the 5th straight sectional final for the Blue Devils, while this was only the first in program history for the Braves.  

The 1st period saw the momentum heavily favor Westfield as they came out with blazing energy. Westfield just kept finding the lanes into the offensive zone, and even when Manalapan got a power play, the Blue Devils kept putting the shots on. By the end of the period, Westfield got ten shots to the net. Still, the score remained tied at 0 going into the intermission thanks to spectacular saves made by the Braves junior netminder #35 Christain Esposito. 

The start of the 2nd period saw a swing in momentum and a burst of energy from Manalapn. Their high energy is why the score changed in their favor less than 10 minutes into the period. Senior #8 Michael Schmelzer scored on a redirect, with the primary assist going to senior #9 Josh Kushnir. After letting the first goal go in, the Westfield goaltender, senior #50 Andrew Raber, was stellar against the Braves opposition. The second period would see the momentum change again as the Blue Devils controlled the game for the final five minutes of the frame. While the scoreboard didn’t read in their favor going into intermission, the momentum did. 

The goaltenders were the stars of the 3rd period, and the period was a display of two players trying to be the game-changing factor for their team. The frame saw momentum go back and forth multiple times, with both sides getting opportunities to get on the scoreboard, but spectacular saves ended those chances for both sides. In the game's final minutes, Westfield cranked the pressure up to the max, but even with high intensity and the extra man, they still couldn’t solve Esposito before time expired. 

Schmelzer’s 2nd-period game-winning goal, along with an incredible 35-save shutout performance from Esposito, were the keys to victory for the Manalapan Braves. With this win, the Braves broke the program record for wins as they continue to make history during this playoff run. 

Manalapan will take on Northern Highlands Monday night at the Prudential Center for a chance to win the state championship title.

Governor Livingston vs. Manasquan

The South Public Co-op final saw reigning Public C State champs, Governor Livingston, face off with Manasquan. Manasquan came into this sectional final sporting a 19-6 record and having beaten Ocean Township 7-2 in their semifinal. Governor Livingston had gone 21-4-1 and breezed past their semifinal opponent with a 7-2 victory. We would soon discover that these sectional finalists were evenly matched in a scoreless first period. Manasquan had a power play early but couldn’t generate enough quality scoring chances to bother Scott Capan, the GL goalie.

In the second period, the action picked up when Manasquan’s Jack Buonato split the defense and scored one-on-one with Capan to give his team the first lead of the game. However, this goal served as a wake-up call for Governor Livingston, as they responded four minutes later with senior forward Daltry Ferrigno’s goal. Ferrigno’s goal was also scored in close one-on-one with the goalie, and the game was tied at 1-1.

At 3:17, Manasquan took a penalty but killed it off. However, shortly after that, Governor Livingston’s Brady Silverman went in on a breakaway and was tripped up by a backchecking Manasquan player, resulting in a penalty shot. Silverman took the penalty by skating in slowly. Still, he almost lost control of the puck before recovering and lifting the puck over DiStefano, who had lurched forward to poke-check him to give Governor Livingston a 2-1 lead heading into the intermission.

Early in the third, Manasquan’s Strider Carhart almost equalized when he deked through a defenseman’s legs and had a one-on-one with Capan. Still, his wrister into the chest protector was not good enough to beat Governor Livingston’s goalie.

With three minutes left in the third period, a loose puck crossed the blue line inside Manasquan’s zone. Their goalie came out to play the puck and collided with an opponent who knocked the goalie’s helmet off. The result was a five-minute power play for Manasquan, who had a tough time penetrating the slot on that power play. They controlled the puck completely but ran into a stubborn Governor Livingston penalty-killing unit that wouldn’t give up.

With one minute remaining in the game, Manasquan pulled their goalie to give themselves a 6-4 man advantage. They got two good looks after that; one of their forwards took a wrist shot from the bottom of the left circle that Capan blocked aside; one of their defensemen had a shot from the high slot that a Governor Livingston defender blocked.

Thanks to a heroic penalty kill at the end of an epic sectional final, Governor Livington’s boys ice hockey team were able to hold on for a 2-1 victory. Now, they will face Morris Knolls in the public co-op state final, which will be their third straight appearance in the state championship game. That game will occur at 3:15 p.m. at the Prudential Center next Monday, March 4th.

Antony Paradiso and Adriana Leone also contributed to this story.