NEWARK, NJ — It’s not how high you climb, it’s the view from the top that makes it all worthwhile — and for the Hilltoppers from Summit, the view is spectacular.
Greg Spitznagel erased a one-goal deficit with a pair of goals 2:43 apart in the first period before Tom Pryymak, Charlie Collins and Remi Vidal blew the doors open with three goals in the second period as fourth-seeded Summit defended its NJSIAA Public C state title with a 6-2 victory over sixth-seeded Chatham in a reboot at Prudential Center in Newark.
The triumph marked back-to-back state titles for Summit — both over Chatham — and the third overall state championship for the Union County school which defeated Tenafly for its first title in 2012.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” Spitznagel, a sophomore with two state titles already to his credit, said. “We have a great group of kids, a great group of coaches — I’m very blessed. It’s such a great feeling.”
Nikita Pryymak, making a successful return to the rink following an meniscus tear just prior to the start of the season, came full circle turning aside 38-of-40 shots, including 15 in the opening frame to keep the Hilltoppers in it.
“They told me four-to-six months — I thought my season was over,” Pryymak said. “To come back this year, I wasn’t 100 percent, but I took the risk coming back early and just did my thing. It means so much — to win it last year then come back and do it again — it’s just unreal. So incredible. A chance of a lifetime.”
Coming in red hot with nine wins in its last 11 games, Chatham (14-12-2) struck first when Jack Deletto cashed in from Matt Keane just 2:45 into the game.
Despite falling behind early, Summit was never discouraged. In fact, the goal lit a fire under the Hilltoppers which bounced back with two goals 2:43 apart — both off the stick of Spitznagel.
The big sophomore forward tied it at 1-1 with 5:04 left in the opening frame, assisted by Joe Galgano and Tom Pryymak, before scoring off his own rebound moments later to give Summit a 2-1 lead with 2:21 to go in the first.
“It was tough to go down 1-0 but we took the lead back. We just fought back and made it 2-1,” Spitznagel said. “Nikita was huge, making some big saves, standing up for us — just lights out.”
The Hilltoppers (20-6-0) continued to press with three more goals in the second period to establish a 5-1 lead and never looked back.
“We came out flying, just like the boys wanted,” Chatham’s Coin Pierce said. “The boys played hard. A few bad bounces. That’s hockey — you’ve got to fight through it. We just couldn’t recover.
Chatham (14-12-2), which made a tremendous run late in the season once the Cougars returned to full strength, came within one game of becoming the second at-large team to capture a state title. Morris Knolls accomplished the rare feat in 2014.
“Nothing but positivity this season,” Pierce said. “From where we were at the beginning of the season? At one point we were 5-10-1. A lot of people said, ‘You’re not going to make the playoffs,’ but look where we made it — one of eight teams still playing. I’m proud of the boys. Coming into the season I thought we could do something really special and we did.”
Skating into the second intermission with a 5-1 lead, Chatham cut the deficit to three when Michael Sciaretta hit 7:25 into the third from Danny Mahoney and Declan Curry. Any hopes of a comeback were squashed, however, when Chris Magovern capitalized on the power play 3:55 later.
Chatham goalie Zachary Pendergrast stood tall in between the pipes for the Cougars, stopping 18 shots.
“We were ready. Our start was very good and there was a ton of confidence on the bench,” Chatham coach Brendon Herr said.”Even when they tied it up there was plenty of hockey left. A couple breakdowns, a couple of quick goals in the second but even then we have a mature group, we came back in and looked at the positives. 2-1 after one we were right in it, but credit to Summit, they’re a good team with a good goaltender and good structure.
“The boys can hang their hat on the fact they were an underdog coming in, we were an at-large bid and we’re standing at “The Rock today,” Herr said.
Summit coach Keith Nixon said it was night and day difference between last season’s state title run and this year’s accomplishment.
“For some reason, we’ve come back from being down early on a number of occasions,” Nixon said. “We weren’t worried about it. We got the lead at the end of one and rolled off three straight there in the second. We started getting bodies to the front of the net and moving the puck a little bit better, getting guys on the secondary (chances). We didn’t want to over-commit to the net, we wanted the first guy to go hard to the net and the secondary guy 15 feet behind him and we got a few really good looks there. We’ve been doing it throughout the state tournament and it’s been successful.
“The difference between last year and this year was night and day,” Nixon said. “Last year, everything was smooth sailing from the start of the season. This one, losing our goalie even before the season started, losing a top-four defenseman, kids getting hurt, kids getting sick — we’re so banged up right now but this team’s got something right going on right now. We took two completely different paths to the same place.”
After falling to Westfield in the McInnis Cup, Summit won four straight to close out its third state title.
“There’s just no other feeling like this,” Summit’s goaltender said. “We just played our game. Incredible — second time in a row — makes it so much better. Some kids don’t even win this once, but being back-to-back champs? It’s just incredible.”