By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Back in August, the people associated with the Middle Township High School field hockey team weren’t sure if they’d even have a season this fall.
Then, once it started, there was always the threat that it all could end abruptly at any time.
Such is life in the high school sports world during an unprecedented health crisis.
But remarkably, Middle was able to take its season as far as it could possibly go. And a victory in its final game resulted in one of the sweetest championships in the school’s storied sports history.
Hannah Urbaczewski’s goal with 2 minutes, 47 seconds to play in the first overtime period gave Middle a 1-0 victory over Haddon Township in Saturday’s South West A Region title game.
The tally, scored when Urbaczewski chipped the rebound of Shea Gerhard’s sharp-angled shot inside the left post, touched off a wild celebration as Middle’s players rushed the field and euphorically fell into a pile of unbridled celebration at the top of the shooting circle.
The victory came in the team’s third appearance in a sectional title game in four seasons.
“It’s been a long time,” Middle coach Janina Perna said. “I think this group of seniors has done everything else but win a championship like this. This was the one thing this group of seniors hadn’t done. This was the only thing that kind of hung in front of them. It’s been the goal every year to get to this kind of game and win it and now they did it.”
Middle (13-2-1), the top seed in the tournament, won the second sectional title in program history, the other coming in 2016.
Both teams’ defenses starred throughout regulation, as neither side could find a goal. Middle had the better of the chances but Haddon Township goalkeeper Grace Gauld made a couple of key stops.
Second-seeded Haddon Township (13-5) earned a corner chance early in overtime but the opportunity was swept away by the Middle defense. Middle then slowly began to take control of the flow of play, generating a handful of corner chances. But again, the team couldn’t find the cage.
That changed in the final three minutes when Gerhard burst down the left flank and ripped a backhand shot toward goal from the left edge of the striking circle. Gauld got her pads to the shot but the rebound fell to Urbaczewski, alone near the left post. She didn’t get much on her first swing but got enough on her second for the ball to float between Gauld’s right pad and the left post.
Urbaczewski, who returned to Middle for her senior year after spending her sophomore year at Atlantic Christian and her junior year at Absegami, didn’t start the seven-v.-seven overtime period but was subbed into the game a few minutes prior to her goal.
“Hannah is one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever coached,” Perna said. “Her grit and determination shines in moments like this and sometimes that’s all you need. We needed someone with a little extra energy to come in and push it in the net and she gave it to us. This couldn’t happen to a better kid, probably one of the most deserving kids.”
Perna was extremely emotional after the game. She cried while addressing her players and their parents during a heartfelt speech after the game. Earlier, she nearly fainted at the sight of Urbaczewski’s goal, falling to her knees near the bench as the rest of the players and coaches rushed the field.
“It’s been a season with a lot of what ifs and unknowns and a season that a lot of people thought might not even happen,” she said. “But this ended up being my favorite season I’ve ever coached. It just reminded me of how much I love to coach and how much I love this game. A lot of things I probably took for granted I started to appreciate more. I just loved being around these girls every day. This was just a lot of fun and this ending made it the icing on the cake.”