Southern Field Hockey Team’s Defense Shines in Conference, State Tourney Shutouts

By DAVID BIGGY | Nov 01, 2017
Photo by: David Biggy The Southern Regional field hockey team bombards goaltender Maddie Leyh after the Rams knock off Millville, 2-0, in the quarterfinals of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament on Oct. 28.

The Southern Regional field hockey team’s defense seemingly has become expert at bending but not breaking. And the Rams proved that defensive prowess again last week when they shut out Shore Regional in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, then followed it up with a shutout of Millville in the NJSIAA Group IV quarterfinals.

“Our defense has been rock solid the past couple of weeks,” said goaltender Maddie Leyh, who made several big saves, including one during the final minutes of the Rams’ 2-0 victory over Millville on Oct. 28, three days after ousting Shore, 1-0. “On Wednesday, it was crazy. I barely touched the ball. And today, our defense just played another great game.”

Of course, when comparing the two victories, there’s no doubt the goose-egg against the Blue Devils in the SCT semifinals may go down as one of the best wins by a Southern squad in a long time, considering the Rams were last in the SCT championship in 2002.

Against Shore, Southern had just two shots on goals – one in each half. But the one in the first half, with 1:57 left in it, turned out to be the most significant. That’s when Sam Minafo delivered the only goal of the game following a hectic scramble in front of the goal cage. And from there, it was all Southern’s defense.

The second-seeded Blue Devils managed only six shots and a couple of those on goal, which Leyh saved with relative ease. However, Shore’s opportunities to score far outpaced third-seeded Southern with an 18-2 advantage on penalty corners.

Still, the Rams (21-1) bent but didn’t break, moving on to the SCT final for just the second time in program history. But they weren’t finished showing off their stellar defense with that victory, adding a 2-0 win over the Thunderbolts to push forward into the South Jersey Group IV semifinals.

While fourth-seeded Southern certainly had some offensive spurts, Millville (18-2-1) matched the Rams’ ability to move the ball from midfield into the offensive zone. In fact, the Thunderbolts had the best scoring chances through the first 30 minutes, including one midway through the half when Jorja Hibschman got behind the defense and ran onto a crossing pass just to the left of the cage and Leyh had to come out to challenge the shot, which skipped wide. During the final minute of the half, Casey Etter got to a ball that had gotten behind the defense and Leyh made a diving poke check to send it away.

For much of the first 14 minutes of the second half, Millville maintained significant possession time as well, but Southern’s offense finally broke through when Katlin Conroy received a pass from Erika Barbera and blasted a shot from just inside the 16-yard arc. The ball found its way past Millville goalie Michelle Errickson with 15:26 left to give the Rams the initial lead.

“We didn’t really have the fire in the first half,” Conroy said. “At halftime, we said we had to pick up the communication, because once we do that everything goes up. And once we did that, our passing got better and it got us a few opportunities to score. Most of the time, I’m either ripping a shot or trying to send one to the post for a touch. That first one got through.”

However, Millville continue to pressure the Rams’ defense and with just over 10 minutes to go just missed tying the contest, when Michele Berrios had a wide open cage as she received a crossing pass from the opposite side right outside the goal crease. Berrios attempted to backhand the ball into the goal, but as Leyh dove to her left the ball bounced off her helmet and went wide by inches.

“That’s what helmets are for,” Leyh said. “I think the other girl thought she had it, but when the ball went off my helmet and wide of the cage she was a bit upset. Which was fine with me. The object is to keep the ball out of the cage as much as possible.”

As time ran down, Millville became more desperate in trying to push the ball upfield. That worked to Southern’s advantage on one particular sequence later in the game, when Maitland Demand’s initial shot near the top of the arc was blocked by a defender, but it bounced right to Conroy a few yards away. Her hammer shot from the top of the arc squeezed between Errickson’s left arm and body for a 2-0 lead with 5:08 left.

The victory was the Rams’ 14th straight win, their fourth straight shutout and 14th shutout of the season. This week, they get the chance to not only extend their streaks but possibly increase their hardware collection.

But that’s not going to be an easy task, whether it’s the SCT or the state tourney. On Wednesday, Nov. 1, Southern were scheduled to go up against top-seeded and unbeaten Eastern (19-0-1) – aka one of the best teams in the state and a program notorious for winning state titles – in the sectional semifinals, and are slated to meet Rumson-Fair Haven, which has won the last three conference crowns, in the SCT championship on Saturday, Nov. 4.

“We just wanted to get to the Shore Conference final and play Eastern,” Leyh said. “These are going to be exciting games, no matter what happens. Any time you get the chance to play in games against great competition, it’s a good thing and I’m looking forward to it.”

Conroy couldn’t think of a better way for the seniors to culminate their careers, playing against two of the best teams in the state in such big games.

“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to go out with a season like this,” she said. “But we want to win these games. Our mindset has to be that we’re not going to lose. We’re going to go out and play our best. And if we can hold our own against Eastern, we can hold our own against Rumson. Some crazy stuff has happened this season, so why not us? We can do it.”

biggy@thesandpaper.net

 

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