By BRIAN CUNNIFF
ERMA — There were tears shed after the Lower Cape May Regional High School field hockey team’s South Jersey Group II semifinal game Tuesday afternoon.
These, however, were tears of unbridled joy.
A handful of players from Lower Cape May were reduced to tears when they realized their mission was accomplished — they’ve finally sent the program to its first-ever South Jersey title game.
Thanks to what head coach Anne Bracken described as what was “probably our best half of the season” in the opening 30 minutes and a solid defensive effort in the second half, the Lady Tigers dispatched Sterling, 2-0, in a South Jersey Group II semifinal in front of a large home crowd.
Lower Cape May (13-3-1), the third seed in the section, will play at top-seeded West Deptford on Friday at 2 p.m. for the South Jersey championship. West Deptford was a 1-0 winner over No. 4 Delsea in the other semifinal.
“I’m really proud of them,” Bracken said. “They knew they had a chance to make history and they went out and tried their darndest to do it.”
Reese Bracken, the daughter of the head coach, exhibited sublime skill in giving the Lady Tigers the lead less than six minutes into the contest. After Emma Golden’s corner insert, Maddie Schiffbauer sent the ball toward the middle of the circle, where Golden redirected it in Bracken’s direction. With her back to goal, Bracken used a backhand flick to whip the ball into the upper right corner for the score.
Bracken began the play that resulted in Lower’s second goal midway through the half. Sterling goalie Payton Feeney made a wonderful save of another high flick by Bracken with her blocker, only to see the ball fall to Anna Franklin, who chipped across the face of goal before Schiffbauer tipped it into the cage.
“We really played as a team and kept our intensity up and our passing was pretty good,” coach Bracken said. “I wished we could have finished more but we really played as a team.”
Seventh-seeded Sterling (9-13) enjoyed much more of the possession in the second half. But for all of the Knights’ forays toward and into the scoring circle, they managed just six shots on a goal thanks to a stingy Lower Cape May defense. Lower goalkeeper Makayla Hueber needed to make only a couple of critical saves.
“The second half was a little rough for us but we defended really well,” coach Bracken said. “Our goalie didn’t have to make too many saves but she stopped them when she had to.
“We knew Sterling was going to be a really skilled team. They play in a tough (Colonial) Conference. They go against teams like West Deptford and Haddonfield. So we knew this was going to be a tough contest. Having it at home was definitely beneficial.”
Lower Cape May is now one of three Cape May County teams that will play for sectional titles. Ocean City, in Group III, and Middle Township, in Group II, are also South Jersey finalists.
“You look at the other teams in our area, they’re really good but I knew we had the capability to do the same,” coach Bracken said. “You look at Middle, they made it into the state Top 20, and then I don’t have to say anything about how good Ocean City has been over the years. It’s good to see our kids putting up a fight.”
And they get to fight at least one more time on Friday for the chance to win a championship.