By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — It was always going to be Ocean City that won the inaugural Cape-Atlantic League Tournament in field hockey. Who else could it be? For a team that has so thoroughly dominated the league for years and racked up multiple sectional and state championships, it was the Red Raiders’ destiny. Their right, even, to take this trophy back to the island.
Now, the Red Raiders haven’t been quite as dominant as they were five or six years ago, and the wins inside league play have gotten tougher to come by, but Ocean City still is the most skilled team in the league and one of the best in South Jersey. The Raiders proved that on Friday afternoon, jumping out to a 2-1 lead on host Hammonton and hanging on to a 3-2 lead in the fourth quarter before finally prevailing, 4-2.
“We were prepped for battle. They play physically and they are a good team. I was happy with how we responded. We came out on fire today and set the tone early,” said Ocean City coach Kelsey Burke, a former standout player at Eastern Regional High and Iowa University. “They are very dangerous in transition and that’s something we really focused on — limiting their fast-break opportunities. I think a big difference maker today versus the game when they won, 1-0, is we finished. We had opportunities during that game we lost, we just weren’t able to capitalize. Today, we were able to.”
Hammonton, the only South Jersey team to beat Ocean City this year (a 1-0 victory on Oct. 6), got within 3-2 when Abby Goblirsch scored off an assist from Chloe Comunale with a little more than five minutes remaining in the game. That put some serious pressure on Ocean City’s defense and goalie Taryn Dolka.
“Time was running down and we were trying to stay as cool and level-headed as possible. You understand your own skills, you understand the other team’s skills. We’re both really good, it’s just a matter of playing as seriously as you can and keeping your eye on the ball no matter what,” said Dolka, who finished with 12 saves. “I felt very confident with my defense in front of me. I knew with the amount of penalties (Hammonton) was drawing that (a goal) was bound to happen. We were all talking to each other and if that were to happen we were just going to lock it down, play cool and stay calm.”
Hammonton (13-3-2) had several more chances but was turned away, and eventually Ocean City (12-3-2) scored on a corner goal from defender Andi Helphenstine in the final few seconds to seal the win.
The Red Raiders got on the board before even two minutes had gone by in the first quarter, as Brooke Hanley poked one in off an assist from Julia Neff. But Hammonton responded two minutes later with a tally from Maria Berenato, knotting the game at 1-1.
Ocean City carried a 3-1 lead into halftime thanks to a pair of goals in the second quarter. Tricia Nicoletti gave the Red Raiders the lead for good by scoring 30 seconds into the second quarter, and five minutes later Mia Pancoast redirected a shot from Nicoletti and into the back of the cage for a 3-1 Red Raiders lead.
“They were really great competitors and it was a very tough game against them. We kept putting goals on and they would put a goal on — it was back-and-forth,” Nicoletti said. “It’s exciting that it’s our turn to win something. Last year, we were in the sectional final for South Jersey Group 3 and it was pretty sad when we lost that game. But this is a great feeling that we get to come out here and show how good we are as a team.”
Ocean City drew the No. 4 seed in the upcoming South Jersey Group 3 tournament and will host No. 13 Pinelands Regional on Tuesday. The Raiders could meet Hammonton again in a South Jersey final, as the Blue Devils are the No. 2 seed in the section and will host No. 15 Cherry Hill West on Tuesday. The teams are on opposite sides of the bracket, which is led by No. 1 Clearview Regional and also features tough teams such as Lacey Township, Triton and Northern Burlington.
“This feels great to get this boost. It’s another rock under us to keep us going. It feels good,” Dolka said.
“They are really excited. This kind of preps your mindset for the state playoffs moving forward,” coach Burke added. “Every game matters and you have to win to move forward. This time of year you always want to have good battles. We had a tough game on Wednesday against St. Joe (in the semifinals) and faced another tough opponent (in Hammonton).”
What’s next: Ocean City hosts Pinelands on Tuesday in the first round of the South Jersey Group 3 tournament, time TBD. Hammonton hosts Cherry Hill West on Tuesday in the first round of the same tournament, time TBD.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays