SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - While no great team goes into post-season play expecting a defeat, almost all enter it knowing how real the possibility of a season-ending upset is. Knowing it’s a possibility doesn’t make it any less shocking when it happens though, and today, the South Plainfield High School field hockey team experienced that.
The top-seeded Tigers (18-3) entered their North 2 Group 2 quarterfinal match as a big favorite over ninth-seeded Cranford, and offensively, South Plainfield overmatched the Cougars (7-10-2) in virtually all respects except for the most important one, the final scoreline.
Despite the Tigers controlling the match for almost all of the final 30 minutes of play, two early Cranford goals ended up being the difference maker in a shocking 2-1 loss that ended the Tigers tournament run, and an otherwise stellar season.
“If we would've showed up in the first half the way we played that second half, I don't think that score looks the same as it does,” Tigers coach Melissa Szeliga said after the game.
“That's what's tough; knowing that if we did a little bit more in that first half, things would've been a little bit different.”
Though the Cougars had all of their offensive success in the first half, the Tigers certainly generated the most chances in the first 30 minutes of play. South Plainfield earned five first half corners, while Cranford had just one.
That one Cranford corner ended up being an immense difference maker though, as it caused a fight for the ball in front of the South Plainfield net that ended when Brooke Bishop poked in the go-ahead goal for the Cougars 11 minutes into the game. About 14 minutes later, Lucia Rinaldi sent in a goal that doubled the lead to 2-0.
The Tigers kept the ball almost entirely during the second half, and Cranford’s saving grace in that half, and really the entire game, was unquestionably the amazing play of their goalkeeper Sophia McMullan.
Caity Hughes and the rest of the Tigers offense looked to have the Cranford goalie beat multiple times in the second half, but the pads of McMullan almost always stayed them off. The goalkeeper had 12 saves in all, and fended off 12 South Plainfield corners in the second half alone.
Szeliga watched McMullan earlier in the week, and knew she’d perform well, but even Szeliga had to admit that the keeper played out of her mind today.
“We worked on really moving the keeper in practice yesterday, but moving her and taking direct shots at her, she was stopping everything today,” the coach said. “We're not used to a goalie staying as deep in the cage as she did today, so that was really hard to adjust to, and I think that was part of the problem, but she played out of her mind.”
The Tigers fought to the very end though, as they’ve been doing this entire season. With just two seconds left in the game, Hughes finally got past McMullan and put her team on the scoreboard, but by then it was obviously too late to mount a comeback.
“Especially in the second half, I don't think there's anything we could have done different,” Szeliga said. “They threw everything at that Cranford team. We did a great job fighting back, and scoring in the last two seconds of that game just showed that they wouldn't stop till the job was done, and unfortunately we didn't have enough time left to come back.”
The heartbreak of today’s loss could be seen in the faces of South Plainfield players after the game, but even with that, the team has plenty of reasons to look back at this season fondly. The team made history in their perfect streak that earned them a GMC title, and their play throughout the season earned the respect of many, including their coach.
“I couldn't be more proud of how they showed up from preseason ready to go, with goals in mind,” and emotional Szeliga said moments after giving a post-game speech to her team.
“Getting over that GMC hump was huge for them,” the coach added. “This week was tough. We went out and searched for tough teams to play. I don't know if that made us intimidated a little bit, but they used it as a growing experience. These girls have worked so hard from the very start, so I'm so proud of them. This senior class is really going to be missed next year and the underclassmen already know how much work we have to for next season already. This season was a great season, but it was a tough way to end it the way we did today.”