By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The Middle Township High School field hockey team could finally breathe a sigh of relief with less than five minutes to play in its state playoff opener Thursday.
After chance after chance went awry for a home side holding a tenuous 1-0 lead, Kate Herlihy finally created some breathing room with her second goal of the game and Middle went on to a 2-0 win over Gateway in a second-round South Jersey Group I playoff game.
The win moves top-seeded Middle (17-3-1), which enjoyed a first-round bye, into a sectional semifinal game on Monday at home against No. 4 Pennsville. Pennsville was a 4-2 winner over Glassboro in its second-round game Thursday.
Middle dominated Gateway (12-10) throughout but simply couldn’t come up with the goals to prove it for much of the game.
Herlihy scored the opener late in the first half when she maneuvered to the left of Gateway goalkeeper Marti Grassia and blasted into the open net.
Middle peppered the Gateway circle with chances and earned multiple corner insert chances throughout the entirety of the game. But Grassia came up with a whopping 22 saves to keep her team in it until Herlihy flicked a shot from the middle of the circle into the left corner of goal late in the second half to create a two-goal cushion for the winners.
Amber Howatt earned her program-record 15th shutout of the season in goal. She was rarely tested, save for a quick flurry of chances midway through the first half.
The two goals gave Herlihy 36 for the season.