By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR CITY — Middle Township’s field hockey program may not have the likes of Kate Herlihy and some of the other stars that made it such a formidable program in recent years anymore, but the Panthers are still a tough outfit to beat, no matter what their record says.
The Panthers came into Wednesday’s Cape-Atlantic League National Conference tilt against upstart Cedar Creek sporting just one win, but they gave the host Pirates all they could handle, playing to a scoreless standstill through the first 30 minutes before Creek found a way to put a couple into the cage in the second half.
Star forward Riley DeMarco got Cedar Creek on the board first and Paige Bonner added a goal late in the third quarter — and sophomore goalie Delfina Vanelli did the rest, pitching a shutout as the Pirates scored a hard-fought 2-0 victory. The Pirates were able to rebound from a tough 3-2 loss on Monday to CAL National-leading St. Joseph Academy, one of just two undefeated teams in the league along with Egg Harbor Township.
“This was a great win. A great second-half win and a great whole team win. I can’t be more proud,” said Cedar Creek coach Heather Martin. “We just keep on building. This was huge for their morale going into a game on Friday, and we play Monday, Wednesday and Friday again next week. So, this was huge for them.”
“I think today we really pulled through with big hits through the middle and looking for that next person to go to for a give-and-go, and we kept going down the field. I think that first goal was when we really decided to capitalize,” said senior central defender MaKenzie Baggstrom. “We tried to talk more (in the second half) and look for that next pass through to try to keep opening up the field.”
In the second half Cedar Creek (5-2, 4-1 CAL National) used more long hits through the middle to put pressure on Middle’s defense and force a bunch of corners, and that’s where the scoring opportunities began to emerge.
With 5:50 remaining in the third quarter, Creek’s Rachel Dutton played a corner pass to the center and DeMarco sent one to the back of the cage to put the Pirates up, 1-0. About five minutes later Cedar Creek scored again off a corner, as this time Paige Bonner rattled the back of the cage for a 2-0 advantage. That was all Creek’s stout defense would need.
Vanelli was outstanding, making several key saves, and she got plenty of help from fellow sophomore Leah Martin, Baggstrom, Cereya Lee and Liv Thoms.
“I really look to my left and right, Cereya Lee and Liv Tomms — they are my left- and right-hand women,
said Baggstrom, the captain of the defense. “They really help me out with big hits and they help direct me, and it just works.”
“There was more communication (in the second half) and there were a lot more give-and-go, which is our game. We had more shots and when we put our shots on net, they go in. We have some big hitters,” coach Martin said. “(Vanelli) is a sophomore and I totally changed everything with her because I was a goalie. So we changed a lot with what she was doing at the beginning of the season, and she’s doing an amazing job. Everything we tell her to do, she does.”
DeMarco’s goal was her team-leading 10th of the year and the Pirates have netted 23 goals in just seven games while allowing just 11, including three shutouts. They’ll need that kind of effort coming up during a tough stretch that includes two games against Holy Spirit, a rematch with Middle and a big rematch against St. Joseph Academy in mid-October. The Wildcats (6-0. 5-0) currently hold just a one-game lead on Creek in the CAL National standings.
“I think St. Joe’s was a humbling moment and a reality check that if we want to win, we have to pick it up now or we’re going to have (wins) taken from us,” Baggstrom said. “I think we learned we don’t want that feeling to come again and that we liked that winning feeling we had at the beginning of the season. To keep that high energy, we just have to keep winning. We just need more practice, repetition, and when we find comfort within each other things will just come naturally.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays