BRIDGETON — The Bishop Eustace field hockey team is Non-Public South champion once again.
The second-seeded Crusaders successfully defended their sectional title in dominating fashion with a 9-2 win over top-seeded St. Joseph on a chilly and windy Wednesday afternoon at Bridgeton High School.
Bishop Eustace (17-3) will face powerhouse Oak Knoll in the state final on Saturday at Bordentown. Game time is noon. The Crusaders are chasing their first state Non-Public title and the program’s first state championship since 2012 when they won Group 2.
While Bishop Eustace looks to avenge last year’s 3-1 loss to Oak Knoll in the final, the Crusaders also will take some time to enjoy their South Jersey title.
“It feels pretty darn good,” Bishop Eustace head coach Danielle Senior said. “We had a young team last year, so we were hoping we would get to this point, but you never know how the season is going to unfold. I feel like, as we did last year, we’re really starting to use the whole team. I felt like in the beginning of the season, we were using the left side more or trying to use the alleys too much. I feel like know we really have used the whole field and every player has made a true contribution to the team.”
Coming into Wednesday’s contest, the Crusaders and the Wildcats were pretty evenly matched in almost every category, both offensively and defensively. Both Bishop Eustace and St. Joe averaged around six goals per game this season and were very close in shutouts — the Crusaders had eight, the Wildcats had nine.
It was expected that the sectional final game would show just how close the two teams were, but the Crusaders seemed to have an extra edge throughout the game. On many battles for either loose balls or balls in space, Bishop Eustace looked faster and more agile, which allowed them to set up their plays and earn scoring opportunities.
“I think our tactic when we practice is to do drills on the move so that we’re getting used to that,” Eustace’s Amanda Manuola said. “I think in the game, when we put it into play, it really helped. We do a lot of sprint laps, so that helped too. I just think our adrenaline was moving. We were just kicking it and ready to play.”
With the game tied at 1-1 in the first half, Bishop Eustace managed to separate itself on the scoreboard. With 16 minutes remaining before intermission, a corner helped the Crusaders open the floodgates.
On the inbound pass, the ball was skipped outside the attacking circle, but the Crusaders retained possession and worked it back down low. Following a pass from Ally Criscuolo, Erin Quinn found the back of the cage for the go-ahead goal.
The Crusaders would add two more goals during a five-minute span. Manuola knocked home a Quinn centering pass to make it 3-1 at 14:07 and Drew Pecora extended the lead when she ripped home a shot off a corner with 11 minutes remaining in the first.
“We came out with really high intensity, so I think that helped us a lot,” Pecora said. “We found each other, we had great passes and we had great communication. Our forwards had a great game — they kept finishing. We all did a great job.”
Manuola added another goal in the final minute before halftime to make it 5-1 heading into the break. She finished the contest with three goals and Quinn finished with four assists, both game highs.
But even with a four-goal lead and all of the momentum, Bishop Eustace refused to let up as the second-half whistle sounded. Less than four minutes after halftime, Alexis DiGennero looked for a deflection near the right post, and even though it went untouched, her shot still found its way in.
The Wildcats tried to get back intot the game with a Carlina Sacco goal at 19:48, but that’s the closest they would get. The Crusaders tacked on three more goals — two in the final two minutes — to wrap up what proved to be a solid all-around effort.
“Our staff is a big believer in playing an offensive game,” Senior said. “We know that we’re going to score goals and we’re probably going to have goals scored against us because we are so offensive. At the end of the day, if we score more goals than they score, then it’s a win. I said, ‘Just keep playing the game you play, keeping going to the cage, make smart passes and use the whole field. If the left side is not open, go to the right side.’ St. Joe’s was great defensively. They were throwing down a lot of block tackles — you have to dodge it, you have to lift it, you have to use other players. You can’t do it yourself.”
As the Crusaders move on to play Oak Knoll, they’re hoping they can get over that hump. Both Pecora and Senior think the team needs to follow Wednesday’s blueprint while putting the experience gained in last year’s contest to good use.
“They have to believe,” Senior said. “It was a 3-1 game last year, and hopefully we’ve gotten better and we have a little bit more experience and we’re as good as any team out there. If they believe it, and they fight the fight with what they fought with today, I think that anything is possible.”
Bishop Eustace 9, St. Joseph 2
Player of the game: Bishop Eustace’s Amanda Manuola for her hat trick, including the game-winning goal with 14:07 remaining in the first half.
Play of the game: Early in the game, Erin Quinn carried the ball into the attacking circle from the left side while dancing around two Wildcats. She ripped a shot but St. Joseph goalie Alexis Orcutt made a spectacular lunging save to keep the game scoreless at the time.
Well said: “It’s really big. It’s really exciting. We work so hard for this. It’s a great moment. All of our effort was put into this and to have the outcome that we did, I think it’s really special.” – Drew Pecora