MORRIS TOWNSHIP -- Ridge knows how hard it is just to get there. Once there, it knows both heartache as well as jubilation and was determined to bring this one home.
Connor Villa broke the ice 2:30 into the second period and John Vilade doubled it 7:46 later as the second-seeded Ridge Red Devils held off a relentless 13th-seeded Watchung Hills squad en route to a 2-1 triumph at the 42nd annual NJSIAA/New Jersey Devils High School Hockey State Championships at Mennen Arena in Morris Township.
After falling short in 2004 and 2009, the Somerset County school was solid from the drop of the puck, getting 18 saves from goaltender Chris Ambrozy, to even its record in the finals and capture its second state title in school history and first in nine years before 1,984 in attendance Sunday night.
"It's indescribable. I don't know. It still doesn't feel real yet," an overwhelmed Vilade said after helping his Basking Ridge team to its first state championship since in 2008. "We put in so much hard work it's just amazing. This was our season from the beginning."
"We had a chip on our shoulder the whole time," Villa said. "A great group of guys and we wanted to end it the right way."
After a hard-hitting, scoreless first period, Villa made no mistake putting Ridge (23-6-1) on the board first to start the second.
"Brett (Carey) saw me circling in the neutral zone looking for some space. He saw a gap in the defense and made a great pass. I just skated right through them and put it home," Villa described his goal. "We talked about breakouts, where space was open in the neutral zone, came out and just executed."
After Villa put Ridge up 1-0, Jack Mandala set up Vilade for his team-leading 23rd of the year to provide some breathing room and send the team to the locker room with a 2-0 lead after two.
"My sweet spot is right in front of the net. I've had a lot of success there this year. Thankfully I have great linemates," Vilade said. "Jack gave me that pass and I don't know… it was amazing."
"There was definitely no breathing room," Villa said. "We turned it around, kept it going and played as hard as we could."
After pulling upsets over fourth-seeded Hunterdon Central, fifth-seeded Livingston and ninth-seeded Princeton on its way to its first state-final appearance since 2008, Watchung Hills (12-7-7) had Ridge on its heels in the third period. The Warren school finally cashed in when Matt Piro scored on a breakaway to make it a one-goal game assisted by Zach Lindewirth and Michael Brady with 6:23 remaining in regulation.
"It was just a nice play by Zach and Brady to work together and chip the puck out of the zone. I knew I had to blow it past them with speed, tried to beat them wide, make a power move to the net and slid it five-hole," Piro said. "It was huge. It gave us the extra boost we thought we needed. It was close but it just wasn't meant to be."
Watchung Hills pulled goalie Ryan McHugh in favor of an extra attacker but could not solve Ambrozy a second time. Still, it was a heck of a run for a Cinderella team that did not want to leave the ball by midnight.
"We fought hard. We went over the film, knew they liked to spring a guy up the middle, liked the triangle and feed the slot," McHugh, who finished with 24 saves, said. "Just a couple of mental breakdowns. We battled hard, battled all season. That's hockey."
"We put Watchung Hills hockey on the map," Piro added. "We weren't supposed to be here. No one believed in us but we believed in ourselves and that's what mattered most."
Tim Mullin, in his 22nd season as coach at Ridge, appreciates the wins so much more having also tasted the bitterness of defeat.
"You get here and you have to get lucky," Mullin said. "We were down 2-0 to River Dell in the Sweet-16. Anything can happen in the state tournament. Anybody can beat anybody. Things broke our way this time.
"2008 seems like such a long time ago. Those guys are all out of college now. But both teams are the same in that they have great kids. It was just our turn," Mullin added. "It was a long time coming. Four of the past five years we've lost in the semifinals. I'm really happy to win it for the first time since 2008."
Watchung Hills thought its 13th-seed in the Public A Tournament was an insult and used that as motivation in its first state-finals run in nine years.
"When the seeds came out we were sitting at our lunch table laughing," McHugh said. "I cursed them out, 'We're not a 13!,' and stopped talking to them. We just believed in each other. Even the guys that didn't play. They were just as loud, just as excited to be here. We just grinded. That was the motto all year -- just grind."
"I saw heart, will, effort," Watchung Hills' coach Anthony Criscitello said. "Two great hockey teams. One has to be a winner, one has to be a loser. Unfortunately, it didn't bounce our way but I thought we played a great game and so did Ridge."
Ridge -- Connor Villa (Brett Carey) 12:30
Ridge -- John Vilade (Jack Mandala) 4:44
Watchung Hills -- Matt Piro (Michael Brady, Zach Lindewirth) 6:23
Chris Ambrozy, Ridge, 18 saves. Ryan McHugh, Watchung Hills, 24 saves.