By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — Coaches always say they want their teams to be playing their best come tournament time. The Hammonton field hockey team was at anything but its best in the first quarter of an early start time Saturday morning in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament quarterfinals, but once the Blue Devils woke up they raced past Middle Township and into Monday’s semifinal round.
The Blue Devils were facing a 2-0 deficit heading into the second quarter, got one back before halftime, then blitzed the Panthers with five unanswered goals in the second half to run their unbeaten streak to nine games. Hammonton’s last loss came on Sept. 27 against Washington Township, and since then the Blue Devils have gone 7-0-2.
“That’s an understatement to say that we came out flat, but they turned it around, and that’s what I was happy about,” said Hammonton skipper Kristen Silvesti. “When a team goes down like that, they may not rally, so it gets nerve wracking when you’re down 2-0. Yeah, there’s a lot of game left, but they could have sat back and said, ‘oh well, what are you going to do?’ But they rallied, and they rallied hard. It was nice to see them play like that.”
Middle Township (9-7-2, 7-2-1 Cape-Atlantic League United), the No. 6 seed in the six-team tournament, got on the board early with a goal from Gwen Boal, and the Panthers extended their lead to 2-0 later in the first quarter on a penalty stroke conversion by Eliza Billingham.
But midway through the second quarter, Hammonton (12-2-2, 6-1-1 CAL American) responded as sophomore Maddie Gazzara redirected a shot by Brianna Gazzara to get the Blue Devils on the board. Maddie Gazzara finished with a game-high three goals, including the tying goal that came with 10:46 remaining in the third quarter.
“I was a little scared at first, but I knew my team could pull through. I think we all just had to calm down as a team and know that we could do it if we just focused on staying chill and not going crazy,” Maddie Gazzara said. “We definitely were caught off guard (by Middle). Coach told us we had to work together. We beat this team 5-0 earlier this week, so we knew we could do it. We just had to stay composed and do our best to come back.”
“I always tell them that when we played Ocean City — that game that we won (on Oct. 6) — we received the ball at the circle and we scored in 16 seconds. I go back to that all the time. Look what you did in 16 seconds one time, imagine what could happen in 45 minutes,” Silvesti said. “Literally, anything can happen. So I think that experience has helped them realize that anything can happen in a minute or two. That’s been helpful.”
In the second half, No. 3 Hammonton started taking control of possession and was able to get a lot of chances on corners. That effort was spearheaded by junior back Gracie Donio. After Kaylie Ranero put Hammonton up, 3-2, with a goal late in the third quarter, Donio essentially iced the game with a wicked shot off a corner a few minutes before the start of the fourth quarter. That put Hammonton up, 4-2, and the Blue Devils cruised from there.
“She has one of the best shots in the league,” Silvesti said. “Her ball is phenomenal. You can’t even stop it sometimes. When her ball hits your stick, it’s still flying. When she’s confident and plays hard she can get those kinds of shots off, which is nice.”
Hammonton scored twice more in the fourth quarter, as Maria Berenato tapped in a cross to make it 5-2 with 9:54 to play, and Maddie Gazzara picked up her third goal with 8:17 remaining.
On Monday, Hammonton travels to No. 2 Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Newfield for the semifinals. The other semifinal features No. 1 St. Joseph Academy hosting No. 4 Ocean City, which beat fifth-seeded Cedar Creek on Saturday. The tournament championship game is on Oct. 27.
“We play OLMA (12-0-1) and we’re excited to go there and play them. I know they played Middle and they played them hard, so that’s our only comparison. We have to be ready to go on Monday,” Silvesti said. “And Ocean City won their game today so they’ll play St. Joe on Monday, so if we win Monday we’ll see either Ocean City or St. Joe — again. I’m not even thinking about the fact that OLMA is unbeaten. We can’t think about that, we just have to get our job done.”
What’s next: Middle Township hosts Absegami on Wednesday at 4 p.m. Hammonton travels to OLMA on Monday for the CAL semifinals at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays