Malvern >> Villa Maria Academy, which advanced to the PIAA 2A field hockey state semifinal last fall with a young squad that at times featured four freshmen on the field, is off to a 4-0 start after defeating Merion Mercy, 2-1, Monday.
The Hurricanes opened their 2020 season with an 18-0 win against St. Basil Oct. 13, rolled past Villa Joseph Marie 12-2 the following day, then earned a 3-2 decision over key rival Mount St. Joseph’s Oct. 17. Currently, the Hurricanes are ranked No. 3 in PIAA District 1 2A.
“Our key has been teamwork,” said Villa Maria’s third-year head coach Katie Evans. “We have so many players with ability, so many weapons…. But the biggest key is that we’re really working together as a team. I’m excited for the future of this program.”
Monday, the Hurricanes were facing a Merion Mercy squad that had defeated Sacred Heart, 6-0, Oct. 13 in its only game to date. For years, Villa Maria and Merion Mercy have enjoyed a strong rivalry, and 2019 was no exception – the Golden Bears defeated the Hurricanes in the District 1 2A semifinals en route to the district title, then Villa Maria turned the table in the PIAA 2A state quarterfinals, beating MMA 2-1.
This fall, Merion Mercy (currently ranked No. 3 in the District 1 2A ratings) features a somewhat different cast of characters.
“We lost a large senior class [to graduation] last spring, and we’ve got seven new starters this fall,” said Merion Mercy head coach Gretta Ehret. “For six or seven of our girls, today was their first big varsity game.”
Merion Mercy also has some solid senior returnees this fall, and two of them – midfielder and co-captain Victoria Arra (a Boston College field hockey commit) and goalie and co-captain Kristen Rake (a University of Richmond FH commit) – played strong roles for the Golden Bears Monday.
Villa Maria and Merion Mercy battled to a scoreless draw for more than a dozen minutes Monday before Hurricane sophomore Gia Whalen tallied with 2:12 left in the first period.
“Gia did a great job distributing the ball today,” said Evans of Whalen, who last year made the USA U16 National Team as well as the USA Junior Indoor National Team.
Villa Maria held onto that 1-0 through halftime. In the first half, the Hurricanes enjoyed a 6-1 advantage in corners, but Rake proved a tough nut to crack, collecting five saves before halftime.
In the third quarter, Merion Mercy penetrated deep into enemy territory several times, and eight minutes into the period, Arra scored, with an assist from Cate Vogle.
“Victoria creates a lot of opportunities in midfield for us,” noted Ehret. “We adjusted our lineup in the second half, and talked about spacing and maintaining possession, and I think we did a better job of that in the second half.”
The 1-1 tie lasted for six minutes. With 1:05 to play in the third period, Villa Maria’s Annie Shaw tallied the tiebreaker in a crowd in front of the net. Assisting on the play was junior Lindsey Roberts, an Ohio State commit who was the top scorer for the Hurricanes last fall with 18 goals.
In the pre-season, Evans said of Roberts: “We’ll rely on her poise and goal scoring prowess to set the tone for our attack. This will be a breakout year for Lindsey.”
Villa Maria kept the visitors off the scoreboard for the rest of Monday afternoon for the 2-1 win. Rake finished the game with eight saves, and VMA goalie Jackie Stinger collected five.
Evans noted the defensive contributions of Villa Maria junior back Maia Dechiario, who recently committed to the University of Connecticut.
“Maia played midfield for us last year, but we moved her to back, and she’s really anchored our defense,” said Evans. “She has great ability on both sides of the ball with a ton of diversity in her skills.”
For Dechiario and the rest of the Hurricanes, the 2020 season has already been a memorable one, for the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and related safety protocols.
“It was difficult for us at first, but once we realized that there would be a field hockey season for us this fall, we worked really hard on our conditioning and finishing,” said Dechiario. “We’ve become united as a team. We realize that we are all in this situation together.”
Next on the schedule for Villa Maria is a Friday contest at Gwynedd Mercy (3-0), rated sixth in the current PIAA District 1 2A rankings.
Villa Maria 2, Merion Mercy 1
Merion Mercy 0 0 1 0 – 1
Villa Maria 1 0 1 0 – 2
Merion Mercy goals: Arra.
Villa Maria goals: Whalen, Shaw.
Goalie saves: Merion Mercy – Rake 8; Villa Maria – Singer 5.
Corners: Merion Mercy 5, Villa Maria 10.