By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — The group of seniors playing field hockey for Hammonton High got their start as middle schoolers under coach Kristen Silvesti. She moved up to the high school with them and was an assistant coach before taking over as the Blue Devils’ head coach prior to last season. She said she has seen these players go from kids who barely knew how to play the sport to young women who go out there with confidence and determination every time they take the field.
Those traits were on full display under bright sunlight on Tuesday afternoon as Hammonton edged Ocean City, 2-1, to win the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament in our Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week. It was sweet revenge for the Blue Devils, who lost 4-2 to Ocean City in last year’s league title game. It also marked the third time this season that Hammonton beat the Red Raiders, and each time the score was 2-1.
“All day (Tuesday), a lot of people were telling me, ‘do you know how hard it is to beat a team three times (in one season)?’ I said, ‘yes, I do, thank you very much.’ At one point, I was googling the statistics and the only thing that was coming up was NFL stuff,” Silvesti said. “But these girls wanted it. It’s the same exact situation we were in last year and they knew that feeling of when it doesn’t work out in your favor. They wanted it. They went undefeated in all of our CAL games this year and they were riding that high. They knew they didn’t want that one loss. And they worked. I think this is one of the best games I’ve seen them play collectively — passing, communication, picking each other up, that was huge. Hopefully we can capitalize on this going into the state playoffs.”
Hammonton (14-3, 10-0 Cape-Atlantic League American) took a 1-0 lead less than three minutes into the game when Jenna Vivadelli sent in a cross that Kiley Kozlowsky tapped home to the back of the cage. But later in the first quarter Ocean City (9-6-1, 5-4 CAL American) scored the equalizer, as Taylor Amstutz redirected a shot from Ella Jefferson to knot the game, 1-1.
The Blue Devils took the lead for good midway through the third quarter when Chloe Comunale scored off a corner, and that was it. Hammonton left it up to its defense to finish the deal, and led by Gracie Donio and Sophia Penza, the Blue Devils held strong. That defensive group held the Red Raiders scoreless for the final 47 minutes of the game.
“Actually, the corner wasn’t supposed to go to me, somebody else was supposed to take the shot,” explained Comunale, a senior captain. “So when it went to me I was just thinking, ‘man, I just need to get this in the goal.’ That’s what I did, and it felt great to get the lead. It didn’t feel like (a 2-1 lead) was going to be enough. I kept saying we need to get one more in to feel comfortable, but having that one-goal lead was nice because it put us in a more confident position for the rest of the game. Thank God our defense played great because usually a one-goal lead isn’t enough.”
“Gracie Donio, she leads those girls and she does a great job of saying, ‘drop, push, calm down.’ I have to credit her with how she reads her teammates. She does a great job with that,” Silvesti said.
“Our defense had to maneuver our defensive skills — it was a see-saw motion with one player up and one back,” Donio said. “There was definitely a higher level of intensity this time so we had to come out strong and get that first goal in. It’s a great feeling. It’s a good feeling for our senior year, going out strong.”
Donio made perhaps the most important play of the game early in the third quarter. Ocean City was putting on heavy pressure and sent in a shot that Hammonton goalie Angelina Catania deflected. It was headed right for the back of the cage before Donio stepped in and whacked the ball out of danger.
The win in a championship atmosphere was huge psychologically for Hammonton, as Ocean City has dominated the Cape-Atlantic League for decades and rarely loses to conference opponents.
“As an alumni of this program who never won against Ocean City, I think this as a different feeling. When I was in high school, it felt impossible (to beat them) but now, hopefully moving forward, whatever team we have knows it’s not an impossible thing. They’ll always be a very hard team to play against, but it’s doable. You don’t see them on the schedule and think it’s not possible, and that’s important,” said Silvesti, who has led the Blue Devils to 27 wins the past two seasons. “Some of these girls, I got to coach them in middle school. This senior class, I coached them in sixth, seventh and eighth grade and then I was an assistant coach in their ninth and 10 th grade years, and then their head coach (as juniors and seniors). So it was a little bit of — poetic justice isn’t the term, but it’s just a great feeling to watch these girls go from little girls who could play to young women who are amazing, phenomenal players. As a coach, I’m proud of them.”
“We’ve always moved up together and our skills have grown together. We’ve all played together for about seven years or longer, and we’ve definitely come together as a group,” Donio added. “Our coaching has been great and this is a great feeling. This group has grown stronger together.”
Now, Hammonton turns its attention to the state tournament where the Blue Devils enter as the No. 5 seed and host Delsea on Thursday. Hammonton is on the same side of the bracket as No. 1 Shawnee and No. 4 Northern Burlington. Ocean City drew the No. 7 seed and plays host to No. 10 Cherry Hill West on Friday. The Red Raiders and Hammonton could meet again if both teams advance to the championship game.
“(Winning the CAL Tournament) puts us in such a high, confident position,” Comunale said. “Last year, we lost to them in the CAL Final, so it feels great to come back this year and win it.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Hammonton hosts Delsea on Thursday at 3 p.m. in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 3 tournament. Ocean City hosts Cherry Hill West on Friday at 3 p.m. in the opening round of the same tournament.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays