by Andrew Garda
Last time the Montclair Kimberley Academy field hockey team met their opposite numbers on Montclair High School’s team, they came up just short in regulation, losing 2-1. This time the Cougars came out on top, with a 2-1 win in double overtime to advance to the Essex County Tournament finals where they will face the top seeded and defending champion West Essex Knights.
The Cougars were propelled by a Steph Vencalkova goal, a shot which beat Mounties goaltender Amanda Murnick low to the stick side.
Cougars head coach Gia Nappi said it was the first time MKA had made the finals since 2009.
Nappi also said that despite how effective the Knights were this season, compiling a 12-1-1 record, her team isn’t intimidated.
“Actually, for them, they feel more pressure in this game, because it’s a rivalry, than going to play West Essex,” she said after the win. “So, it’ll definitely be a more relaxed game for us and they might feel less nerves.”
There was an element of revenge to their win over the Mounties last Saturday, and that’s there with West Essex as well.
“I think our last game against West Essex was questionable,” Nappi said. “We definitely had the upper hand, and they know that going in, so they’re pumped about getting a rematch.”
Saturday’s semi-final match was a back-and-forth affair, with both teams playing aggressive offense and tough defense. The Mounties again focused a lot in containing sophomore Lindsey Yu, while the Cougars worked to disrupt MHS’ passing lanes and push the ball up the field. Both teams spent a lot of time in the opposition’s offensive zone, and both Murnick and Cougars goalie GiGi Jacobson had to come up big in net.
The Mounties scored first, though, as senior Sophie Pisano beat Jacobson. She was assisted by Fiona Campbell and Grace Crandall.
MKA responded, nearly evening things up several times during the remaining 16:45 of the first half, their offense putting Montclair’s defense on its heels several times.
It wasn’t until the second half that MKA struck gold, however.
Junior Amanda Mack normally stays on defense, but Nappi chose to move her up to take a corner shot. A big hitter by nature, it wasn’t clear why Mack was taking the inbound shot, which often is done with more finesse.
It quickly made sense, though, when Mack redirected a pass from Yu past Murnick with a big hit.
“She’s just a gamer all around,” Nappi said of the two-sport athlete. “So, if I put her at forward, midfield, defense — in fact, if I put her in goal, she’s just one of those kids that she makes it happen and wants to win for the team. Kids like that always deserve to be rewarded, so I’m so happy for her.”
Mack continued to do excellent work on defense as well, stealing the ball from Mounties forwards several time and intercepting passes.
She also did a good job feeding Yu the ball, though the Mounties were able to bottle the Cougars forward up much of the day.
Despite that, Nappi was pleased with Mack and Yu’s effort, as well as that of Jacobson, and how it translated to the rest of the team.
“Having those key girls in each line — Amanda [Mack]. Lindsey [Yu] and GiGi [Jacobson] in the back, it really brings the energy up for everyone else and helps us jell together and make those nice passes. And it forces them to work as a team.”
Momentum continued to swing back and forth between the two teams, with neither one able to convert on offense.
Regulation ran out and they went into overtime.
In field hockey, overtime is 10 minutes long, with just seven players on the field for each team. The set-up played to both team’s strengths, and gave onlookers a fast-paced, wide open match to watch with both teams nearly scoring several times.
As the second overtime began, it looked very much like the game could be decided by overtime strokes.
Then, with just a couple of minutes remaining, Mack stepped up again, finding Vencalkova with a pass in the box.
Vencalkova beat Murnick, and the Cougars punched their ticket to the ECT finals.
Mounties coach Mary Pat Mercuro was disappointed with the loss, but not with her team’s effort.
“I don’t see this as a loss, a setback,” she said after the game. “We played a good team, with an elite player, and we did a fantastic job. So, I don’t see this as a setback, I see this as a stepping stone where we can learn and we will improve.”
While the Mounties wait to hear about their seeding in the NJSIAA tournament, the Cougars live to play another day.
“They played their hearts out,” Nappi said. “They deserve it more than anybody and to have revenge, to come back and play Montclair again and get the win to go to the county final is amazing.”
MKA meets West Essex at Watchung Field for the ECT championship this coming Saturday, Oct. 20 at 2:30 p.m.