By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
TABERNACLE — Before the fourth quarter began at Seneca High on Thursday afternoon, an Ocean City player said to her teammates, “winning this game is a NEED, not a want.”
With seven seconds left to play in regulation and the host Golden Eagles and Red Raiders tied, 1-1, Ocean City’s Taylor Amstutz used her face to save a shot that was deflected off goalie Taryn Dolka. AmStutz paid for the gutsy hustle move with a bloody forehead and was walked off the field by Seneca’s trainer.
If you can score a win over a team like that, it says something about your squad.
Ocean City long has been one of the top programs in South Jersey, and Seneca seems as though its announcing itself as the next great South Jersey program with some of the wins it has been picking up lately. Senior Kyleigh Welusz scored with 4:38 left in overtime to give the Golden Eagles a 2-1 victory — their fifth in six games to start the 2023 season. Seneca started off the season with quality wins over strong teams like Rancocas Valley and Eastern, and now has a win over Ocean City, which came into the game ranked No. 19 in the state by nj.com. Seneca’s only loss was 4-1 to Camden Catholic, a state champion last year.
“We are proud to be in the Olympic Conference and we pride ourselves on a competitive schedule to prepare us for the playoff season. The beginning part of the season is always important because we feel, just like the beginning of a game, it helps dictate the entire game, the entire season. So we want to push the pedal to the metal from the start,” said Golden Eagles coach Kristina Foster, whose team came into the game ranked No. 14 in the state. “We are always proud to play Ocean City because they’ve been a competitive program for many years. Coach (Kelsey) Burke is a great coach and does a really nice job with that program. We love playing them. We usually play them in the preseason, so it was nice to play them during the regular season when it counts.”
The teams battled it out through the first two quarters and went into halftime knotted in a scoreless tie, but each team found its way onto the scoreboard in the third quarter. With 4:31 left in the frame, Seneca (5-1, 1-1 Olympic National) jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by Fiona Sokorai with an assist from Ava Thomas. But just before the quarter came to an end, Ocean City (2-3, 2-1 Cape-Atlantic League American) found its offense, too. Facing some pressure, Seneca goalie Kelsey Besser came off her line to try to cut down the angle. But the ball got past her to her left, and Ocean City’s Mia Pancoast was there to tap a shot into the empty net.
That was about the only miscue for either goalie, as they combined for 18 saves. Besser had six for the Golden Eagles while Ocean City’s Taryn Dolka finished with a dozen.
“What we talked about (at halftime) was getting back to the basics, the fundamentals of our game — being able to receive-and-release right away, playing that two-touch hockey,” Foster said. “That’s something that our program prides itself on and we weren’t doing that well. We weren’t winning the 50/50 balls. We were being reactive instead of proactive. To have that time at halftime for them to be able to think about it and talk about it and make those changes was really important.”
The overtime belonged to Seneca, which pressured Ocean City’s defense for more than five minutes before scoring the game winner. The Golden Eagles were initially denied on the winning play, but Welusz chased down the loose ball and with a quick spin of her body she angled a back-handed shot up over the head of Dolka. It was a thing of beauty, her teammate said.
“We’ve been playing tough teams. We started out with a tough schedule but we’re making it work. We knew what was coming and we played a great game. Kyleigh Welusz played an amazing game, and that was a great shot,” said fellow team captain Riley McClelland. “She’s been working on that every day, trying to get those reverse hits off, and she got it right where she wanted it. It was beautiful to see.”
“I think we really just worked hard and got the ball up there quickly, and we kept it down there (in their end) the whole overtime,” Welusz said. “It came off a stick and I just took a shot. It was crazy, it almost felt like it was in slow motion. I’ve been practicing that a lot.”
Seneca has now won three straight and heads to a national high school invitational this weekend before returning home next week to continue Olympic Conference play against the likes of Paul VI and Cherry Hill West.
“We’re looking forward to continuing our Olympic Conference play next week,” coach Foster said. “We’re excited to take this win and learn from it, because we absolutely have things that we need to work on.
“We always play competitively and tough, and we know Ocean City is always a tough team. We definitely had to hold our own,” McClelland said. “We still have a lot of season left and we’re ready to go and keep winning. This was a learning game — we had our ups and downs — but we have to continue to play like we played throughout the fourth quarter and overtime.”
Adde Welusz, “we played against Camden Catholic earlier in the season and we knew that was going to be a hard game, and we came into this one thinking this was going to be great competition. We were all ready to play. We were a little frustrated (after a scoreless first half) but we knew we just had to stick to the game plan and play hard. I think we have a great team. We have to keep working to get better, but I think we can go far this year.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Seneca plays East Greenwich (Rhode Island) on Saturday in a national invitational tournament. Ocean City hosts Haddonfield on Saturday at 10 a.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter/X: @GDsullysays