RANDOLPH, NJ- While everyone has heard all the typical sports clichés, “Attitude is everything, No pain no gain, Be mentally strong,” not everyone is able to make those words come to life.
The Randolph High School hockey team reached the finals of the 2015 NJ Public A State Championship as a team of disciplined, determined young men who all embody those words. For two of them, Matt Bruno and Matt Koop, the pinnacle would come in the final eight minutes of hockey they would ever play while wearing a Randolph Rams uniform.
Babe Ruth is credited with a famous quote that says, "It's hard to beat a person who never gives up.”
Bruno and Koop are the "TAP into Randolph Co-Athletes of the Week", as the senior forwards "never gave up" while facing and fighting through adversity during the 2014 – 15 season.
When it mattered most, they stepped onto the big stage, and scored the two biggest goals of the season, and possibly of their careers. By combining forces on both the game tying and game winning goals, they led the Rams to a dramatic comeback win which claimed the championship for their squad.
Koop, who sparked the team and turned the momentum back to the Rams with his game tying goal, explained, "I dressed for every game this season, but didn't always play because of how much depth our team has. But I worked hard every day in practice, because I knew I had to earn every shift. It made scoring (the pivotal goal) at 'The Rock' that much sweeter."
Bruno's situation was a bit different. He explained, "I broke my leg before the season on my 18th birthday. I knew I wouldn't be able to play until after the New Year. When I got back on the ice I fought through a lot of pain, but there was nothing that was going to stop me from being on the ice with my friends and playing Randolph hockey in my senior year."
For Koop, the championship game started like many others, dressed and ready but relegated to being a spectator for the first two periods. With the Rams trailing 1-0 and looking for a spark, Coach Rich McLaughlin called his number.
With just over eight minutes remaining in the game, Koop jumped over the boards onto the ice with Bruno and Matt Redgate. Forcing a turnover in the neutral zone, Bruno tipped the puck to Redgate, who skated up the wall and fired on net. Koop was skating hard to the net, and arrived just in time to convert the rebound into the tying goal.
"Halfway through the third, coach put me in for my first shift and that's the one I scored on to tie the game." Koop said. He continued, "It was an unbelievable feeling to be able to score at such an important moment, something I will remember for the rest of my life."
Bruno, who has developed a history of scoring big goals after suffering broken bones, felt like he had the weight of the world (Or at least the town of Randolph) on his shoulders after taking a penalty with only five minutes left in a 1-1 tie game. He explained, "Sitting in the box, I knew if they scored it would be on me. I came out of the box wanting to prove I could fix what I had almost ruined."
And prove it he did. Bruno scored the game-winner with 2:40 left in the game, when he took a pass from Koop and bulldozed his way to the net, burying a wraparound goal he described as "playing the same physical game that got me the penalty two minutes earlier."
Explaining his knack for rising to the occasion after injury, Bruno added, "My freshman year I also scored a big goal in the championship with a broken wrist."
Coach Rich McLaughlin described Bruno, stating “He is a guy who has worked very hard and dedicated himself to the RHS hockey program. He is a great kid and was one of the captains of the team this year.
About Koop, McLaughlin said, “He works hard each day in practice. At times he played a regular shift and other times he did not. But he never quit on himself or the team.”
Both Koop and Bruno agreed their hockey teammates are like brothers to them. Bruno said "As a group over the years we all fought through a lot. All the younger kids in the program should know there is a special bond that is built playing Randolph hockey."
Koop added, “I thank my fellow seniors for all the support over the years. I will miss being at the rink together every week as we have been for most of the past 10 years.”
To younger kids in high school and the rec program Koop said, "I would encourage them to work hard, never give up, and don't take anything for granted. But most importantly enjoy it."
To which Bruno added, "Keep playing and training to get better. You have one of the best teams around in Randolph. Hopefully someday you'll be playing with that "R" on your chest and representing Randolph proudly."
McLaughlin also added, “Each year we have won, there are stories like this about kids like these two, who come up big in the biggest game. It is the reason why we play, coach and are involved in high school sports.”
Koop plans to pursue a civil engineering major in college, and is considering Penn State or Virginia Tech. He hopes to play club hockey, and also plans to continue volunteering for an organization called “Hockey in Newark”, where he teaches underprivileged kids hockey.
Bruno is also looking at a Civil Engineering major with an environmental connection. As for hockey he also hopes to play club in college, and if not he said "I've always got the beer leagues with my dad."