PITTSGROVE TOWNSHIP – Kallie Leonik was practically inconsolable after the game. One of the Middle Township High School field hockey team’s few seniors, Leonik still had tears streaming down her face 10 minutes after a loss to Schalick in penalty strokes following a scoreless draw in Friday’s South Jersey Group I championship game.
But when Leonik was asked more about the season’s journey rather than the way it finished, she was finally able to perk up.
And rightly so.
“We came a long way,” the senior forward said, smiling, albeit forcibly. “A lot of people doubted us but our friends, our family and our coaches really supported us every step of the way. I’m happy we got the chance to get all the way back here.”
Middle had won the South Jersey title for the first time last fall, beating Schalick at home. With so many seniors on that club, this year’s team was expected to struggle.
At the season’s outset, it did. A difficult schedule, combined with relative inexperience, left the Lady Panthers at 6-8 through 14 games.
“But I thought we were a good team waiting to happen,” Middle coach Janina Perna said earlier.
Well, it happened.
Middle went on a seven-game tear, winning six, including one over top-seeded Woodstown in the sectional semifinal. That placed Middle in the final again.
The team wasn’t simply happy to be there. They probably should have won it.
After a first 15 minutes in which the teams traded possession mostly in the midfield, the tide slowly turned Middle’s way. They wound up out-cornering Schalick by nearly two to one and played long stretches in their offensive third of the field, but simply couldn’t find the net. Both teams had chances in the two seven-v.-seven overtime periods and Middle goalkeeper Julia Mallett made two wonderful saves on separate Schalick chances to keep her team in it.
Then it went to penalty strokes, a total crapshoot that does nothing to determine the better team but only provides clarity on who gets to move on in the tournament. Middle lost it, 4-2.
Middle knew it had every right to win the game, which explains the emotions that exploded through Leonik and many of her teammates at the end. Middle certainly played well enough to win. But the inability to find a goal while they were dominating long stretches of the contest cost the Lady Panthers.
“We had opportunities to score and we just couldn’t connect,” Perna said. “Our goalie was huge for us at the end and she made one or two great saves that helped us get to strokes. But scoring was an issue for us this season and it just didn’t happen for us.
The result officially goes down as a draw, Middle finishing 12-9-1 on the season.
“Nobody thought we’d be in (the South Jersey final),” Perna said. “Some people probably thought we were lucky just to get a No. 4 seed and people looked at our record and probably didn’t think we were that good. But we played a really hard schedule and then we really played well at the end of the season. This team showed a lot of progress and we’re so young that I think we can be good for years to come.”
Leonik and the other seniors will move on. But she also expects her younger teammates to be better for the experience next season.
“I think we showed a lot of heart and we really set our minds to get here,” Leonik said. “Every single person wanted it. If they work that hard next year, I have no doubt they’ll get back here.”
— Brian Cunniff