Senior center midfielder Nikki Freeman scored both goals, including the game-winner with 1:14 remaining as the third-seeded Red Devils ended Warren Hills' three-year title reign with a 2-1 victory in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament championship game on Saturday at Morrison Field.
Hunterdon Central (10-6) claimed its first HWS championship and the program's first county title since winning the Hunterdon-Warren crown in 2003. In addition, the Red Devils ended an 11-game skid against the Blue Streaks with their first win in the series since 2007, and avenged a 2-1 loss to Warren Hills in last year's final.
|Hunterdon Central celebrates the program's first HWS championship.|
Central probably feels the same way about Freeman. Her go-ahead goal came off a penalty corner with time winding down in a second half that mostly controlled by Warren Hills, which dropped to 27-3 all-time in HWS games with its first county loss since a 2-0 defeat to champion Voorhees in the 2012 semifinals.
Freeman received the insert pass and blasted the ball into the left corner of the cage. The Central defense, which bent but didn't break the entire game, was able to hang on after facing eight penalty corners in the second half alone. Freeman had a chance earlier in the half to break a 1-1 tie, but her attempt on a penalty stroke with 28:40 left struck the left post. In last week's semifinal victory over Voorhees in two rounds of strokes, Freeman converted on both of her attempts.
"I was trying to go the same way I did [against Voorhees]," Freeman said. "I guess I just didn't angle my body good enough. It feels great to get the second goal at the end. It felt great for the team."
Warren Hills (14-4), which was denied a share of the Skyland Conference Raritan Division title for the first time since 2010 with a 3-1 loss to Voorhees on Thursday, has struggled against the tougher teams on the schedule. The Streaks had scored a 2-1 win over Central during a regular-season meeting on Sept. 10.
Warren Hills thought it had scored the go-ahead goal about 5:30 into the second half, but the officials ruled that a ball -- sent in by freshman Sam Dugan from outside the circle -- was never touched once inside, though junior wing Alyssa Appleby was perched on the left side and appeared to misdirect it into the right corner of the cage. After a brief conference, the two officials called no goal. Streaks coach Kate Rothman protested with no avail.
"I thought my kids played well," Rothman said.
Junior forwards Tali Popinko and Rebecca Sigman, along with senior Caroline Cotte, were all over the field pressing the action for Warren Hills. Popinko started several nice drives, while Sigman put Warren Hills in front early with her 13th goal of the season with 13 minutes to go before halftime.
Freeman knotted the score with 2:15 to go off a corner -- another rocket shot into the right corner -- with a nice assist by senior Dayna DeVincentz. It was Freeman's first goal since Sept. 29 in a 5-0 win over Watchung Hills, ending a six-game scoring drought.
The title was a long time coming for Hunterdon Central coach Jenn Sponzo, whose team was playing in back-to-back finals for the first time since making three straight appearances in the Hunterdon-Warren championship games from 1996-98. Beating Voorhees for the first time since 2005 in the semis and reversing last year's final loss against Warren Hills made it even sweeter.
"It definitely did," said Sponzo, whose team was coming off a tough 2-1 loss in overtime on Thursday to nemesis and perennial Group 4 runner-up Bridgewater-Raritan. "The seniors wanted to get this back. It was the same score [as last year's final] only reversed. We did struggle in the second half. I thought our passing was really nice and our defense, including [goalie Elizabeth O'Brien] was outstanding."
Sponzo called a timeout right after Freeman's missed stroke and the Red Devils seemed to respond.
"We were very confident with Nikki [taking the stroke] and she was confident," Sponzo said. "I just told them to relax, stay strong and finish. I knew Nikki could handle the pressure and she had a lot of fire behind [the second goal]."
Next up for both teams is the sectional playoffs.
Hunterdon Central is the No. 2 seed in North 2, Group 4 and could very well see No. 1 Bridgewater-Raritan in the final. Central's season has ended with losses to the Panthers in the last two tournaments after winning the sectional title in 2013, when Bridgewater-Raritan was in North 1. The Red Devils, who will host either Hillsborough or North Hunterdon in their opener on Oct. 31, have lost the last eight meetings with the Panthers since a 2-1 win in the regular season in '13.
Warren Hills, which has won back-to-back Group 3 titles, is the No. 3 seed in North 1, Group 3. The Streaks, who will open at home against Mount Olive next Saturday, will be seeking their fifth straight sectional title and the program's 14th overall.
Hunterdon Central (10-6) 1 1 -- 2
Warren Hills (14-4) 1 0 -- 1
First half -- WH, Rebecca Sigman, 13th, 13:00; HC, Nikki Freeman, 10th, (Dayna DeVincentz), 2:15.
Second half -- HC, Freeman, 11th, 1:14.
Shots -- Hunterdon Central 9; Warren Hills 5.
Saves -- Elizabeth O'Brien 4 (HC); Jackie de Raismes 6, Sydney Moskal 1 (defensive save).
Penalty corners -- Hunterdon Central 6; Warren Hills 10.