By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The Middle Township High School field hockey team will play for a South Jersey championship later this week.
The opportunity comes via a 7-0 trouncing of Pennsville in the sectional semifinal round Monday.
The top-seeded Lady Panthers (18-3-1) will host No. 3 Woodstown for the South Jersey Group I championship. Woodstown was a 2-1 winner over No. 2 Schalick in the other semifinal. The game is currently scheduled for Thursday at 2 p.m. but could be moved to Wednesday or Friday due to the forecast for rain.
Middle has qualified for the sectional title game for the fifth consecutive season. The team won the title in 2016 and lost in the title game in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
“Making the South Jersey final was our goal from the beginning,” Middle coach Janina Perna said. “The kids knew they had the potential. They’re bitter about how last year ended (a 2-1 loss to Schalick). The goal all year was to get to the South Jersey final and to be the No. 1 seed and host it. They’ve been working every day for it. They haven’t let down all year. I’m really proud of them.”
Middle struggled to score in a 2-0 win over Gateway in its tournament opener last week. But the team had no such issues against No. 4 Pennsville (11-7-2).
Caroline Gallagher, who would go on to finish with three goals and an assist, fired the winners into the lead before the game was six minutes old. Thirteen minutes later, Dakota Ludman redirected Gallagher’s cross into the cage. Then, with 11 minutes to go before the half, Kate Herlihy’s dribbling shot off a cross from Ludman somehow trickled through the Pennsville defense and into the net as Middle took a 3-0 lead at halftime.
“The emphasis at practice was to have better shot selection and to not be so out of control on offense,” Perna said. “You don’t know how many opportunities you might have so you have to capitalize on the ones you get. That was our focus coming into the game — jumping out ahead and setting the tone for the game.”
Middle continued to attack with success in the second half. Gallagher netted her second 10 minutes into the half to put the game out of reach. Middle then scored three times in the final 10 minutes through Ava Karimalis, Ludman and Gallagher.
“This was definitely our best game, especially with our passing game,” Perna said. “When they pass like that, they’re at their best.”
Amber Howatt needed to make just three saves for her program-record 16th shutout of the season.