PLAINSBORO TWP. – If there were any doubts about the best field hockey team in New Jersey before Wednesday’s Tournament of Champions semifinal, there were certainly less when the final horn sounded.
After receiving an underwhelming No. 4 seed in the five-team bracket, Eastern Regional High School wanted to prove itself the best.
In Wednesday’s matchup against No. 1 Warren Hills at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, the Vikings did just that by beating the Blue Streak 4-1 and advancing to their sixth-consecutive TOC final.
Even though Eastern (26-0) advanced to the final game of the 2015 season, coach Danyle Heilig was not impressed with her team’s game.
“I think the kids played hard,” the Vikings coach said. “It wasn’t pretty. There were a lot of things missing in our game tonight, but I don’t think it necessarily lacked effort. I think the first 10 minutes were really nice. We cruised. I don’t know how many we put in early on but it was a few. Our passing was very beautiful, then all of a sudden it just kind of fell apart. But I don’t think it was a lack of effort.”
Heilig was right. It wasn’t effort that was missing from the Eastern side.
The team registered 18 corners, including nine in the second half, which was more than Warren Hills (22-3-1) had the entire game (5). Eastern also outshot the Blue Streak 19-6.
Early on, it looked like Eastern was going to run away with things like it did on Monday against Shore in a 12-0 blowout.
Mackenzie Keegan got the Vikings on the board first less than four minutes in off a set corner play. Alexis Pettisani took a pass near the top of the circle from Madison Morano and sent a shot pass to the left side where Keegan could knock it home.
Pettisani added her own tally at the 20:39 mark of the first half when she let go a rocket with eyes that found its way to the back of the cage. Jessica Maute made it 3-0 just 3 1/2 minutes later and it felt like the rout was on.
Instead, Eastern took its foot off the gas.
“We definitely came out really hot and then I think we kind of just got comfortable and stopped having the intensity that we brought,” Morano said. “That was just unacceptable.
“We just weren’t connecting as well as we have been and we were playing a little individual today when normally we play as a unit. That was definitely the thing that hurt us the most.”
Warren Hills took advantage and did all it could to try and cut into the lead. After finally tilting the field in its favor, Dani Profita got behind the Vikings’ defense and ripped a shot past a lunging Cassie Kincaid to cut the lead to two.
Eastern, however, did its best to not let momentum slip away completely in the second half. Much like in the first half, they did it early. Not only that, but they went to their big guns.
Off a corner, Morano took a hard shot from the right side that was tipped home near the left post by Nikki Santore to make it 4-1. It was Morano’s third assist of the night and her fifth in two TOC games so far.
While it was far from the best the Vikings have looked in 2015, even a bad Eastern game is a great game by many other standards.
“You got to write it off as a little blip,” Heilig said. “I think despite the fact that we’re not happy, we controlled and dominated the game.
“You can only ask emotionally for these kids to give and give and give for so long. At some point — they’re kids. It was 2-0 pretty quickly. I think they knew, at that point, we’re moving on to Friday despite the fact they were playing out the next 30 minutes of the game. They’re not stupid. They survived, they played well and we’re moving on.”
Not only is Eastern moving on, but it advances to face a familiar foe in Oak Knoll on Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Kean University. It will be the third consecutive TOC final between the Vikings and Royals and the fourth meeting overall. Eastern holds a 2-1 record against Oak Knoll in the final (the Royals won in 2010).
The Vikings also defeated Oak Knoll (24-1) this season on Sept. 19 by a 3-1 mark.
“They have an awesome defensive core unit,” Morano said of the Royals. “So, trying to capitalize on all of the opportunities that we’re given and take away the breakaways because they might not dominate, but once they get down the field, they take advantage of their opportunities and that’s something they’ve always done.”
NJSIAA Tournament of Champions Semifinal
At West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North
Eastern 4, Warren Hills 1
Goals: E-Mackenzie Keegan, Jessica Maute, Alexis Pettisani, Nikki Santore; WH-Dani Profita.
Assists: E-Madison Morano, 3.
Saves: E-Cassie Kincaid 5; WH-Jackie de Raismes 15.
WARREN HILLS 1
•Player of the game: Eastern senior Madison Morano for her three assists.
•Play of the game: With 18:09 left in the first half, Morano had the ball on her stick. Looking to make something happen, she spun around and ripped a shot that was knocked home in front by Maute to make it 3-0.
•Well said: “This senior class, we’ve been through a lot together. We’ve played a lot together and we’re definitely going to come out hard and end with a bang because this team is very important to us and everyone on this team is important to us. This is a big game and we’re excited to hopefully end it on a good note.” – Morano