By Ed Kensik
For the Montclair Local
Montclair Kimberley field hockey coaches and players knew that they would have to get on top early if they wanted to pull off a first-round upset in the state tournament.
The Lady Cougars came in as the underdog 12th seed against fifth-seeded Northern Highlands, which was undefeated, in the first round of the Northeast A section contest on Friday night.
Montclair Kimberley arrived under the lights well-tested thanks to a tough schedule this fall that included facing two of the top programs in the state in Oak Knoll and West Essex.
Overall, the upstart Lady Cougars played well, but just could not finish off an upset bid against Northern Highlands and saw their season end with a 2-0 defeat.
“I’m really proud of how the girls played tonight,” said Montclair Kimberley interim head coach Isabel Mendez, whose team finished the season with a 5-8 mark. “We didn’t give up, and we improved on our chemistry and our ball movement. We were in it the whole time.”
You could say that the Lady Cougars outplayed Northern Highlands in the first and fourth quarters, but the Highlanders got the better in the sandwich quarters and finished off with a goal in each. Northern Highlands’ Mikayla Walsh and Kaiden Canariato each scored, for the difference.
Despite the defeat, Mendez believed that her team brought their best effort in the state match.
“I do think Friday’s game was one of our best because we were very disciplined in our defensive circle, won the majority of 50-50 balls, and out-cornered Northern Highlands,” she said.
But the Highlanders defense shut down Montclair Kimberley’s top scorers, junior Kate Weinstein and sophomore Caroline Murphy.
The Lady Cougars definitely showed that they were missing one of their top scorers in senior Lindsey Yu, who suffered an injury a couple weeks ago. “Since she was our main option on offensive corners and was able to score in regular play, she was greatly missed on the field,” Mendez said.
The Lady Cougars got the better of the play in the first quarter, including three corners.
But Montclair Kimberley could not finish off those corners and get the edge to fend off the offensively aggressive Highlanders.
“We needed to capitalize on our corners,” Mendez said. “If we capitalize on our chances, it’s a whole new game. I thought we came out with a lot of energy to start the game.”
In that first quarter each of the three corners ended in the Lady Cougars not able to get a handle on a shot to get by Northern Highlands goalkeeper Lily Jerome, including a chance with two minutes left in the quarter. Weinstein had a great chance and could not get the shot, 10 yards in front of Jerome.
Northern Highlands did not have their first corner until a minute into the second quarter.
But once they got their first corner it was like a blizzard of offense spread against the MKA defense and junior keeper Phoebe Williams.
Finally the Northern Highlands pressure paid off for them. Four corners by the Highlanders resulted in their first goal, as Canariato swatted a shot by Williams with nine minutes remaining in the first half.
While they were down 1-0 at the half and then down two halfway through the third quarter, Mendez maintained that they were still in the match. “It only takes one corner,” she said. “We were getting the corner opportunities, but not finishing it off. We needed to get rebounds.”
Mendez lauded the play of Williams despite her giving up a pair of goals. “She was great and had awesome lateral movement,” the MKA coach said. “She kept us in the game, which was huge, and that was needed.”
Along with Williams and a group of juniors, MKA has several players returning for the 2021 season. “We have a great group for next year — all but two of our starters are returning,” Mendez said. “With strong rising seniors and a great core of younger players, we definitely have the pieces to put together a winning team.”