By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Much of the focus following the Middle Township High School field hockey team’s 1-0 victory over Haddon Township in the South West A Region title game Saturday was appropriately on Hannah Urbaczewski’s overtime goal.
Moreover, Middle finished the season as one of the more potent offensive teams in the area, producing 56 goals in 16 games. The Lady Panthers also featured a career 100-goal scorer in Kate Herlihy, who netted an impressive 25 tallies in a pandemic-shortened season.
All that aside, however, Middle’s players and coaches wouldn’t have been celebrating a sectional championship on a mild late November Saturday afternoon without the play of the team’s defense.
Anchored by junior goalkeeper Grace Thompson and completed by the backfield of seniors Alexa DiPalantino, Lexie Frank and Shae Gerhard junior and Kylie Graham, the Middle defense blanked a Lady Hawk offense that had proven explosive in the sectional playoffs.
Haddon Township entered Saturday’s championship game having scored 21 goals in its previous three playoff games. The Lady Hawks had netted 10, seven and four goals, respectively, in their postseason contests.
But against Middle, they could barely mount a consistent threat.
Yes, Thompson had to come up with a few big saves, particularly in the second quarter. But the Middle back line mostly prevented Haddon Township from even reaching the striking circle. On the few occasions their opponent did, Middle’s defenders denied good looks at goal.
That effort represented a continued trend established earlier in the playoffs. Yes, Middle had conceded goals in each of its three previous playoff games. However, the goal scored in the opening-round against Riverside was an inconsequential tally in the fourth quarter after Middle had already established a 4-0 lead in what became a 5-1 victory. In the second round, Haddon Heights scored within the first three minutes of the game before being promptly shut out the rest of the way as Middle rolled to a 4-1 win. And in the semifinal against Woodstown, Middle’s defense went unblemished until an insignificant goal was scored with just five seconds remaining in a 3-1 win.
That comprehensive playoff-long defensive effort was a major reason why a massive celebration took place Saturday on the field hockey pitch behind Middle Township High School.
“I think our defense really stepped up the whole playoffs,” Middle coach Janina Perna said. “They are so talented, that backfield, and I don’t think they get the credit they deserve because people are always so focused on our offense. But they’ve been solid all year long and they really shined (against Haddon Township). They just didn’t get that many opportunities against us.”
Middle’s opponents scored just 11 times this season.