Monday, October 22, 2012

HWS field hockey: 'Cats top Red Devils in semifinals

High Point's field hockey team has been viewed as the underdog in this year's Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament. As long as they keep advancing, the Wildcats will gladly accept that label.

Senior forward Darby Smith blasted in the only goal of the game early in the second half, as High Point sent Hunterdon Central packing with a 1-0 victory in an HWS semifinal clash on Monday in Wantage.

High Point (15-1-1), the No. 1 seed in the Sussex draw, advances to its second straight county final with its 10th straight victory. The 'Cats, who lost 3-1 to Warren Hills in last year's final, were largely considered an underdog with most of last year's team lost to graduation.

Coach Bev Keur's team, which recently clinched its third straight NJAC American Division title, advances to meet Voorhees in Saturday's championship game at Hackettstown High School. Start time is set for 3 p.m. High Point is seeking its first HWS title, while Voorhees captured the championship in 2010.

"[This was a] big win," said Keur, now 9-3 overall in the four-year history of the HWS tourney, including a 2-1 win over Central in '09. "I'm so impressed with how the girls played. They've made such tremendous improvement since the beginning of the season. We're really jelling as a team ... which is nice to see."

Hunterdon Central (10-8), despite its record and having faced superior competition, couldn't get anything going against a staunch High Point defense. Coach Jen Sponzo's team, the No. 2 seed in the Hunterdon-Warren draw, was making the program's first appearance in an HWS semifinal and its first in a county semi overall since 2008.

"From start to finish we just didn't play our game," said Sponzo, whose teams are 2-4 overall in HWS play. "I don't know if we couldn't adjust to the grass [on High Point's field] or the long-ball game they play. This definitely wasn't out best performance."

After an evenly played first half, High Point grabbed some early momentum and the lead when Smith cashed in on High Point's fifth penalty corner of the game. Sophomore Alexis Ambrosino sent the insert pass in to Smith, who dribbled and fired a laser high at the right corner of the cage. Hunterdon Central goalie Fran Orella swatted at the ball, but to no avail as Smith logged her 25th goal -- second-most among HWS scorers this season.

"Hunterdon Central is a good team and we came out here really excited to play," said Smith, the Sussex County school's all-time points leader who has at least one goal or one assist in all but three games this season. "Alexis inserted the ball and I just flicked it toward the cage hoping it would go in. Our defense rally stepped it up today."

The High Point defense certainly did the job -- holding Central to just one shot on goal and only two corners. Backs Michala Macken, Kristen English, Michaela O'Hern and Annelise Malgieri were stalwart in front of goalie Erin Williams, who preserved the team's 11th shutout with a key save in the first half.

Central's capable front line, led by forwards Kendall Nickel and Nicole Barrett, barely touched the ball the entire game. Midfielders Ally Baligian and Chloe Maurice were outstanding, as Maurice sustained a bruised ankle off a hard-hit ball by Smith midway through the first half and was forced to leave. Maurice returned in the second half, but her time off the field was costly for Central.

"She was a star for us last year [in Central's run to the North 2, Group 4 title] and a driving force for our defense," said Sponzo, whose team was held scoreless for the fourth time this season.

High Point senior captain Maureen Gill was a real unsung hero in the middle of the field, as she helped on both ends to ensure the 'Cats would play for a county title in back-to-back seasons. Junior forward Carly Satter was all over the field and her speed was a big factor in the win.

"Defense definitely wins championships and it's a huge part of our team," said Satter, a key player on the school's Group 3 champion softball team last spring, scoring the winning run against Kingsway in the title game.

"I'm so proud of our team," Gill said. "We graduated so many girls [from the 2011 team]. I'm really excited that we're going to the finals. We don't want the season to end anytime soon and we have a lot of big games left. We just have to take them one at a time."

Hunterdon Central (10-8)        0                   0             --   0
High Point (15-1-1)                  0                   1             --   1


Second half -- HP, Darby Smith, 25th, 23:13.

Shots -- Hunterdon Central 1; High Point 6.

Saves -- Fran Orella 4, Taylor Barrett 1 (goal line) (HC); Erin Williams 1 (HP).

Penalty corners -- Hunterdon Central 2; High Point 9.

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