REFTON—Way back on September 1st, Villa Maria and Downingtown West lined up against each other for the first field hockey game of the year. The final result is unimportant—though given that Villa is 23-1 while West is 24-0, you can figure it out.
What is important is that these two teams each put great importance on scheduling the toughest competition they can find to load up the non-league schedule, and find each other to start every season. Steel sharpens steel, or so the old adage goes.
Not so coincidentally, there are but two county teams still standing in the PIAA field hockey playoffs—the Hurricanes and Whippets. Tuesday at Exeter High School, Villa and West will take the field for the Class AA (5 PM) and AAA (7PM) semi-finals respectively.
Villa has a great program, with a tradition of success,” said West coach Liz Bradley. “They always play hard and connect well with their passing game. It’s a competitive game to start the season and really helps to prepare for our league games.”
For Villa coach Daan Polders, the annual opener is a great barometer of the kind of team he has.
“They are good competition and it can give both teams an idea where they are at that stage of the season,” said Polders. “For me, the first two weeks is more about, ‘how do we perform’, ‘where do we need growth,’ etc.”
The Whippets will put their unbeaten streak on the line against a team that has been there before. Often. Emmaus, the District 11 champ, is the two-time defending champ, and has a state-qualifying streak that literally goes back decades.
This season, Emmaus is 22-0, and has been nearly as stingy allowing goals as they have been scoring them. For the post season, Emmaus has outscored opponents 12-2 in five games, including 1-0 wins in the state tournament over District 1’s Unionville and Owen J Roberts.
“Emmaus has a very successful program that has a great deal of depth and sound fundamentals,” said Bradley. “Emmaus has played two teams in our Ches-Mont league and the games have been pretty evenly matched. We know Tuesday is going to be a competitive game with and both teams are going to be hungry for the win.
West will come into the game looking to flip the result of last year’s meeting. Emmaus eliminated the Whippets in the quarterfinal round on penalty strokes in overtime, on the very same turf at Exeter High School.
“Last year in the quarterfinals, we lost to Emmaus off a stroke in OT,” said Bradley. “The girls still haven’t forgotten about that and I believe that is going to be the driving force on Tuesday. We were so close to making a run last year, but they halted that.”
Balance has been the operative word for the Whippets all post season. The Whippets have outscored the opposition 18-3 in six post season games and seven different West players have found the back of the cage. Romea Riccardo and Tatum Johnson lead the way with four goals each, but six different players have more than one goal, and the seventh, Anna Miller, scored the lone goal in the quarterfinal win over Lower Dauphin.
“The diversity of scoring is awesome,” said Bradley “It’s great to see all of our lines contributing inside the 25 to get the ball in the cage.”
Of the three goals allowed, two of them came in the first half of the Whippets 3-2 win over Conestoga in the District 1 championship game. Otherwise, the Whippet defense has been virtually impenetrable all season. Goalie Caitlin Coker hasn’t been called on to make too many stops—she has 18 post season saves—but when needed, she steps it up, as evidenced by her 12 saves to preserve the shutout of Lower Dauphin.
“The 0.625 GAA (goals against average) it speaks wonders,” said Bradley. “The defensive unit is doing a great job of communicating, marking, limiting shots from opponents, and forcing turnovers. Caitlin has been doing an amazing job for us this postseason in goal making critical saves for us to advance.”
To say that Villa has been dominant this post season would be a massive understatement. The Hurricanes have bulldozed their way through the first six games of the playoffs, outscoring the opposition by a ridiculous 49-2 margin. Their closest game so far has been a 5-1 win over Mt St. Joe’s in the Class AA district title game.
“The emphasis has always been to play as a team,” said Villa coach Daan Polders, who has guided the Hurricanes to at least the state semifinals in all four years of his tenure, winning it all in 2014 and reaching the finals in 2015. “Pass and- move and let the ball do the work. Villa has improved in this area which creates a high paced game while using a lot of players and using the space well. Everybody wins and everybody loses so we all need each other to reach the same common goal. Every play, every game they make it count.”
Nine different players have scored for Villa Maria, and at least that many have chipped in with assists. While Hannah Miller and Emily Doyle lead in scoring goals with 12 and 10 respectively, they are both more than willing to dish it off to a teammate with an open shot. Miller adds nine assists and Doyle five. Lindsay Dickinson tops the list with eleven assists, and has scored eight goals herself.
“Our goal is to play good hockey and therefore to be successful as a team, and not only as an individual,” said Polders. “Who scores does not matter but how we score does matter. Each player is responsible for her role on the field. They need to be disciplined in what we do and how we do it in order to be able to support each and to meet certain expectations, all while enjoying what we do and have fun with it.”
Anchoring the Villa defense is goalie Dani Acuna. Acuna has stopped 89 of 100 shots on the season as a whole; 14 of 16 since the first round of districts.
Standing between the Hurricanes and third berth in state finals in four years is Twin Valley, the District 3 runner-up, who enters the game with a record of 19-6.
“Twin Valley has been proven in the past to be a solid team to reckon with,” said Polders. “We will have our game plan ready and we will be prepared.”
It’s crunch time, and the best teams always savor every second of it.
“Hard work pays off and this might be good example of that,” said Polders. “However, we are not done yet and always craving for more without taking anything for granted: That is one of our strengths this year. We always try to be prepared for what comes at us–the difference is in the details.”
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