Monday, November 17, 2014

Field hockey: Five thoughts from Streaks' title run

Safe to say it was worth the wait for Warren Hills' field hockey program, which will savor its first Group 3 title -- the first for any female sport at the school -- for a long time to come.

Players past and present, along with coaches and alumni, came out in full support on Saturday to Bordentown Regional High School to watch the Blue Streaks make history with a thrilling 5-4 win in overtime against nemesis Ocean City. The team was even welcomed back into town with an escort to the school, courtesy of the Washington Police and Fire Department.

Warren Hills' seniors with the trophy. (Courtesy Michelle Pulsinelli Profita)
Savor it they all will, considering it was this Ocean City program that had been the bane of Warren Hills' existence -- prevailing in five previous title game meetings, including the last two. But the ninth time was the charm. I've covered all but one other championship game -- the 1999 loss to OC and former coach Luanne Ferenci's final game. The classy Ferenci was on hand Saturday and I was sorry we didn't get the chance to talk.

Ferenci was instrumental in putting this program on the state map nearly 20 years ago, guiding Warren Hills to its first Group 3 final in 1996. Overall, her teams went 226-101-41 in 19 seasons from 1981-99 and captured four sectional titles (1984, '96, '97, '99) in six finals appearances. The '96 team, led by scoring machine Kate Alleger, who logged a then-record 26 goals, and Courtney Fritts, one of three talented sisters to play for the Streaks, was the first to reach a Group 3 final, losing 2-1 to West Deptford.

That 1996 team raised the bar to where we are now as Warren Hills is annually one of the top programs in the state.

Here's five things to note from Saturday's milestone win:

1. The "Super Six" seniors -- forwards Sydney Muntone, Jessica Nissen, midfielder Nikki Profita, along with backs Amanda Crampton, Allie Brouhard and Amanda Oberly -- have left a permanent mark on the program. It's without question the greatest group to come through the program, even without the state title. Over the last four years, Warren Hills is 89-11-1, posting 22-wins seasons in 2011, '12 and '13 before setting a record 23 to date, to go with three sectional titles and two Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex championships. All of this year's seniors were super in this one. Brouhard converted a huge penalty stroke just after Ocean City had gained momentum with one of its own to tie it in the first half.

Profita played perhaps her finest game on Saturday, scoring a goal and adding three assists, including setting up Crampton's game-winner on a penalty corner in OT. She astutely noted that this trophy, which she ran off with shortly after the official presentation, was for all of the past players, especially those who played and came up short in the previous eight finals, including her cousin, Becky Pulsinelli (2000, '01). At the young age of about 12, Profita watched the 2009 Streaks lose a heartbreaker in OT to Ocean City. "I remember when [star forward Toni Popinko in '09] said how she always dreamed of playing the state final," Profita said. "There were a lot of former players here. This really is for them." Popinko, a big addition to the Phillipsburg staff this season, and sister, Tori, were on hand to celebrate the win. Assistant coach Josie (Schanzenbach) Potter was a freshman on the '96 team and a key starter in '99.

2. Defense wins championships for sure and the rock-solid unit for Warren Hills was at it again in this one. If not for Ocean City midfielder and Penn State recruit Lauren McNally, who scored three goals including two on penalty strokes, this may have been a one-sided affair. Crampton and Co. in the backfield were on point the entire game. Oberly made a big goal-line save, while sophomore goalie Jackie de Raismes, who was thrown into the fire this season when a spot opened unexpectedly in the cage, played extremely well. In fact, de Raismes stopped two goals with the pads but the balls took unlucky bounces over the line. She had McNally's second stroke -- the tying goal before halftime -- stopped cold but the ball got away. de Raismes did former star keepers Alyssa Cannavo (2000-01) and Carolyn Kisling (2003) proud, as both lost in state final heartbreakers. In five postseason games, the Streaks have yielded a total of six goals. During the current 11-game win streak, it's seven overall.

3. Speaking of penalty strokes, there were three in succession that resulted in goals -- two for Ocean City -- in the first half. McNally made both for OC, while Brouhard executed on a big one, her fourth of the season and fifth in two years. There were also a few cards handed out for not being five yards away on defense and one on Streaks junior back Rachel Phillips for what I thought was a bad call that led to McNally's first stroke. Officials ruled that Phillips, who made a great save with her stick parallel in the air to the field, moved the stick forward to defend the play. Luckily, that did not lead to a goal with her on the sideline for five minutes as Warren Hills was a player down. McNally left the game in the second half due to a push and OC wasn't nearly the same team. The Streaks took advantage as sophomore forward Dani Profita connected off a feed from her sister for a short-lived 4-3 lead with 11:57 left in regulation. I didn't see three penalty strokes all season, let alone three in a state final.

4. Credit coach Laurie Kerr for working on penalty corners in practice the day before the big game. The winning goal was scored on the exact same play the Streaks ended their session with on Friday. Crampton, being the heads-up player she is, recognized that a hard shot from the right post would most likely wind up being blocked. Instead, she alertly lifted the ball over the goalie, who was down on the field. But make no mistake, that corner doesn't happen if not by the shot off the pads from Nikki Profita on the previous corner in OT.

5. To give you an idea of what a slugfest Saturday was, consider that three of Warren Hills' five shots-on-goal in the second half and OT resulted in scores. Getting back to that stellar defense, the only two shots the Streaks gave up in the final 22 minutes of regulation were goals, while allowing zero in OT. Warren Hills finished with a 6-5 edge on penalty corners, also reflective of two skilled teams going toe-to-toe.

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