In 2007, Chris Tommins was a senior ice hockey player at Bridgewater-Raritan High School.
That winter, Tommins helped lead the Somerset County school to the NJSIAA Public state championship game at the Mennen Sports Arena in Morris Township.
It was a spotlight game in a big venue with a chance to make history.
But Bridgewater-Raritan lost to Randolph High School, 5-4 in overtime. Tommins was crushed.
“It’s a gut punch,” he said.
But as time went on, Tommins realized that he should have been proud for even getting that far.
Twelve years later as a coach, Tommins had a chance to offer that message to his own ice hockey players at Hillsborough High School.
On March 4 at the Prudential Center in Newark, Hillsborough had just lost to Morris Knolls High School, 6-1, in the NJSIAA Public A state championship game.
With the loss, the Raiders fell short of winning the first ice hockey state title in school history. Hillsborough Mayor Frank DelCore attended the game. The township’s fire and police departments were planning events for the Raiders if they had won.
The players knew all this in the locker room after the game. They were quiet and staring at the floor. Then Tommins walked in with a lesson, the one he learned after his own state championship defeat.
“You guys got this far when no one thought we would,” he said. “Keep your heads up.”
“They brought the program to another level,” the coach said.
“We definitely appreciated the fact that he was so positive in that situation,” said Hillsborough goaltender Jason LoRicco.
Before 2019, Hillsborough never even reached a state hockey final. But this team entered the season with more talent than previous Hillsborough teams.
Jude Kurtas and Jason Wolff were a dynamic scoring duo. LoRicco was a precocious freshman goalie. Thirteen other varsity players, besides Kurtas and Wolff, were back from a 2018 team that reached the state tournament.
Once the season began, the Raiders clicked instantly. They started 6-0-1 and established themselves as an offensive juggernaut with a capable defensive unit.
Hillsborough maintained and built on that identity all winter. It scored 166 goals in 29 games, including 21 in its first three state tournament games, all victories. LoRicco went 17-7-1 against players three and four years older than him.
In their second year together, the Raiders knew how to play as a unit. But they also just enjoyed each other.
“It really was the camaraderie,” Tommins said. “In a long season, kids get tired of each other. This team wasn’t like that.”
The Raiders will get to stay together next year, too. Hillsborough only had two seniors this winter, though it will likely lose Kurtas to junior hockey.
But everybody else should be back. So unlike their coach when he was in high school, the Raiders will get another chance to win the state title.
“We’ll be back,” Tommins said.
“We can make another run,” LoRicco added.
Losing Kurtas will hurt though. The junior posted 57 goals and 55 assists this winter.
But Tommins thinks the Raiders can replace Kurtas’ production on the back end. LoRicco is that talented, and he should only improve.
Hillsborough lost to The Pingry School three times this year. After each game, Pingry coach Scott Garrow made a point of complimenting LoRicco.
“He said, ‘Get ready to have some fun with that goalie next year,'” Tommins said.