WILMINGTON — In the 2021 MIAA Division 3 field hockey tournament, Wilmington was unceremoniously eliminated in the first round, knocked out by Bishop Stang. Last Thursday night, the Wildcats righted the wrong, not only winning their first playoff game in five years, but doing so in dramatic fashion.
Going unscored during regulation and a couple of segments of overtime, Wilmington took on East Bridgewater in a fast-paced shootout. The Wildcats outscored the visitors, 3-1, to advance to the round of 16 and a visit to No. 2 Gloucester.
The Wildcats’ road to the tournament was rocky. On the face of it, the regular-season finish of 5-12-1 left them on the brink of qualifying for a postseason spot. Ranked 33rd, it looked like Wilmington would miss the cut of the thirty-two teams. But as the rest of the regular season unfolded, several programs at the bottom of the pack suffered losses, lifting the Wildcats to No. 30. It was a classic case of getting “a little help from your friends.”
Wilmington won hometown, welcoming No. 35 East Bridgewater last Thursday night. The 6-6-4 Vikings had won back-to-back games in the regular season stretch and it was enough to claim a playoff spot under a rule that allows teams with a record of .500 or better to qualify for an inning round. .
Early on, when the unusual heat of the day quickly turned to cold, East Bridgewater took over. The Vikings exhibited crisp ball movement and containment on the offensive end. The Wildcats seemed hesitant at first, and it wasn’t until with four minutes left in the first quarter that Sarah Bryan put the Wildcats’ first shot into the net. East Bridgewater goalkeeper Cara Hancock kicked him.
“I don’t think it was because of not playing,” Wilmington head coach Leanne Ebert said when asked if her team was rusty after 10 days off. “I think it had more to do with nerves. It took them five minutes to get into a rhythm. They fixed it pretty quickly.”
As time expired in the first frame, co-captain Carina O’Donnell picked up a corner and swept the ball inside the circle. It was the first real scoring threat from either team, but was quickly neutralized as the East Bridgewater defense converged and regained control.
Minutes before the half, East Bridgewater midfielder Jacalyn Stella burst in and dribbled deep. However, Viking teammates following the play were slow to react to the rush, and she was soon separated by co-captain Ava DeProfio. The Wildcats withstood another threat in the final seconds before halftime, when the Vikings’ best player, Hope Newman, fired one that was intended for the net. O’Donnell brought her down to keep the scoreless tie.
“I felt like Carina O’Donnell had an exceptional game tonight,” Ebert said of his senior midfielder. “The whole team played hard, but she was outstanding.”
In the third quarter, the Wildcats began to increase their intensity. Isabella Piazza’s shot off Abigail Hassell’s delivery nearly broke the tie, and later Caitlyn George closed in the net and unleashed a good offer that Hancock turned down.
East Bridgewater’s first shot into the net didn’t take place until early in the quarter when Stella unleashed a backhand, which was deflected by Wildcat goalkeeper Alyssa Stack. He followed a Vikings corner, but was well defended.
With 2:12 remaining, Newman hit a hard, bounced shot that evaded the Wildcat defense. Stack was up to the task, making a pad save to send the game into overtime.
The contingent of players was reduced to six plus the goalkeeper for the first extension. Ebert fielded Alexis Melvin, Laci Titterington, Bryan, Hassell, DeProfio and O’Donnell. East Bridgewater presided over the ten-minute segment, but it was Wildcats Piazza who nearly won it with a laser just outside the circle. Hancock tightened the pads, made the initial save but lost sight of the ball. He turned to look into the net, believing he had snuck in. Alerted by his teammates that he was at his feet, he lunged just in time. Another Wilmington corner followed, but Hancock had an unobstructed view of a Hassell shot.
Hope Newman had a devastating, hard and accurate shot, often from a distance. Throughout the competition, she proved to be a nemesis and with 7:45 remaining in the second overtime, she nearly scored the game-winning goal. From thirty feet away, she tested Stack with a rocket. The goalkeeper was up to the task with a shot stop.
“We definitely talked about her,” Ebert said when asked about Newman. “We looked at where she was and carefully decided who would match her. We made some changes to try to take her out of the equation.”
As the fighters prepared for the shootout, fans in the stands made their way to the edge of the field to add closer support. A large contingent of Wildcat football players lined the track to cheer on the girls.
Newman, of course, was selected as the first Viking marksman and delivered. Hassell equalized it, beating Hancock to level him at one goal apiece. Jordan Joseph was stopped by Stack and DeProfio made it 2-1 with his turn. Stack then denied Maggie Schlossberg, leaving O’Donnell to finish. However, her shot resonated off the left post and sent it back to East Bridgewater and Stella, who lost the battle with Stack by a rebound. The Wildcats then turned to Bryan, who had three tricks before finally beating Hancock for the win and a trip to face No. 2 Gloucester.
“When I saw the goalie go down, I knew I had a chance to pick him up,” Bryan said. “One on one is really stressful, but it feels great to go to the next round.”
“We practiced one-on-one yesterday,” DeProfio said. “When I came in for my shot, I just tried to remember what our coaches had taught us. We have to give Sarah Bryan credit for her efforts.”
Relatively untested during regulation, facing only a couple of shots from East Bridgewater, Stack withstood the pressure and played in the spotlight.
“We practiced shooting yesterday and it wasn’t going well,” admitted Stack. “I didn’t think I would do as well as I did, but obviously I’m happy about it. I was nervous but I did it.”
“I felt like it was a close game,” Ebert said. “Both teams played with their hearts. I asked them to leave everything in the field. I felt they did. When I heard there was a shootout coming up, I told them whatever the outcome was, I was so proud of them tonight.”