Chloe Miller Russo of Central Bucks West (#28) watches as a ball shot by Mount sophomore Natalie McNamara goes past her. This goal, McNamara’s second, gave the Magic an early 2-0 lead in the District 1 quarterfinal match. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Chloe Miller Russo of Central Bucks West (#28) watches as a ball shot by Mount sophomore Natalie McNamara goes past her. This goal, McNamara’s second, gave the Magic an early 2-0 lead in the District 1 quarterfinal match. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

In the first three rounds of the Class AAA District 1 field hockey tournament last week, 11th-sseded Mount St. Joseph Academy pulled off one upset and almost accomplished another.

At the start of the week the host Magic took care of number 22 Avon Grove High School, 2-0, then knocked off sixth-seeded Downingtown West by the same score in a road game on Thursday. The second match had been pushed back a day by Wednesday’s rains, so the Mounties found themselves playing back-to-back games since the quarterfinals had been scheduled for Friday.

This third outing took Mount St. Joe to Doylestown to face third-seeded and undefeated Central Bucks West High School. The Magic came out with an aggressive attitude and surprised the Bucks by taking a 2-0 lead on a pair of markers by sophomore Natalie McNamara.

C.B. West got one back before halftime, then spent a great deal of time in the MSJ circle in the second half, reaching a 4-2 advantage with 10 minutes left to play. Magic sophomore Grace Wallis made it a one-goal affair with just under seven minutes to go, but several late rushes did not yield a tying goal for the Mount, who succumbed 4-3.

The Bucks, now district semifinalists at 20-0, were guaranteed one of the six spots allotted to District 1 for the PIAA state tournament. The Magic, who came away with a 14-7 mark, became one of the four losing quarterfinalists who will play for the final two places. The first games of this play-in bracket are win-or-go-home, then the victors meet to determine the fifth and sixth seeds.

In the regular season, the Magic had gone from last year’s fourth-place finish among the Catholic Academies to second-place this time around, with a record of 9-3. With seniors and juniors concentrated mostly on defense and in the midfield and a pack of talented sophomores and freshmen leading the attack, the Mount progressed significantly as the season went on.

“That’s what it’s been all about since August, getting better every game,” said veteran coach Tina Reinprecht. “We had that good group of older players, and from there we were finding out what the young players can do and seeing them become a really important part of the team, particularly our attack.”

Of senior goalie Allison McMullen, who made 13 saves in the Friday quarterfinal, Reinprecht said, “Allison has just had a great season for us. She’s a hard worker who is positive all the time.”

McMullen recorded seven saves in the opening round of Districts on Monday, when freshman Ellie Maransky scored one goal in each half (McNamara assisted on the second). The Magic’s keeper was called upon to make 17 saves in Thursday’s shutout of Downingtown West, and senior back Eliza Ewing (a Norwood Fontbonne Academy product) made a defensive stop on another shot. Mount St. Joe again scored once in each period, thanks to Wallis and McNamara.

This victory put the Magic (with all the second-round winners) in a double-elimination situation in regard to the state tourney; if they lost the next game, they’d still have a chance to work their way back in.

The Mounties arrived in Doylestown the following afternoon for a 5:00 PM start. At game time, shadows were beginning to creep onto the field, but the declining sun still fired up the red and orange foliage beyond the southern end of Central Bucks’ War Memorial Field.

The Mount spent most of the first five minutes in the offensive end. After one C.B. West foray across midfield, sophomore Mary Kate Stefanowicz and freshman Julianna Kratz brought the ball down the right wing in a promising assault, but the resulting shot was turned aside by the Bucks’ senior goalie, Courtney Westover (15 saves).

A little later at the other end, MSJ’s McMullen kicked a C.B. West entry pass clear of the circle, then saved a shot by junior Cadera Smith when the Bucks brought the ball back in. The most dramatic defensive stop for the Mount came in the middle of the period, when McMullen slipped down out to the left of the goal.

A Bucks forward on the same side lined up a shot on the open cage, but by the time she released it, MSJ senior Taylor Merkle (another Norwood grad) had slipped in from the right to take the ball right off the goal line. In the middle of the field, the Mount was getting skillful ballhandling from another NFA alum, junior Marge Lynch, who has made a verbal commitment to play for Princeton University.

During this sequence, the Mount’s McNamara was sitting on the sideline with a green card that had been presented to her with about 18 minutes to go in the half. This appeared to provide additional motivation for the 10th-grader, who scored soon after her return, with 14:03 on the clock.

“Ellie [Maransky] made a nice pass back to me,” she narrated. “I wasn’t even looking at the goal; I just turned and hit it with the back of my stick.”

The Magic kept up the attack, and McNamara scored again with 7:20 to go. This time, Kratz assisted.

“She made a great pass, and I just pushed it in,” McNamara said. “It wasn’t very powerful, but it still made it in.”

The Bucks now knew they needed to score at least one goal before halftime, and a determined offensive produced a goal by 10th-grader Tyler Mason with 2:48 remaining. With half-a-minute to go, Mount St. Joe still had a chance to take a two-point lead into the halftime huddle.

Shadowed by a defender, Kratz carried the ball through the middle toward the left post, but the Bucks back with her was able to steer the MSJ freshman and the ball outside of the cage and over the endline.

As the second period got underway, it became clear that the Bucks had had a serious sit-down at halftime. From a 3-5 disadvantage in penalty corners in the first frame, they came out to dominate the second half in this category, 12-1.

“They got a lot more balls in the circle and put a lot more balls on the cage,” Coach Reinprecht noted. “They execute a beautiful corner. We made some mental mistakes, like someone losing her mark on one of their goals, so it gave us some things to work on.”

Through the efforts of McMullen and defenders like senior Taylor Gray, the Magic were able to cling to their lead for about 10 minutes, then sophomore Lucy Varner evened it up for the Bucks. They kept up the pressure in the circle and two minutes later Mount St. Joe committed a major foul. On the resulting penalty stroke, junior Bryn Boylan converted on a high shot a little left of center, giving the hosts the lead (3-2) for the first time.

The Mount went up on offense for a brief spell after this, but C.B. West was soon back on the attack, at one point earning four consecutive corners in the middle of the period.

Later, on another corner play, the Bucks’ initial shot was blocked, but senior Ryan Murray settled the loose ball and lifted it up and into the Mount cage. This goal, with 10:10 remaining in the game, would prove to be the backbreaker. The Magic would get one point back, but not two.

After the Mounties earned their only corner of the half and did not have a shot, they kept the ball up on offense. With 6:57 on the ticker they pulled within one on their own aerial goal, this one originating from Wallis on the right side of the circle.

In the closing minutes the Magic had chances to tie the bout, and the Bucks also had opportunities to extend their lead. Neither club could make further changes to the score, which was still 4-3 at the horn.

Even down two goals to a strong opponent with 10 minutes to go, the Magic had not lost heart.

Their team speed gives them the ability to strike rapidly, and as Reinprecht pointed out, “When you know you can score quickly, it helps motivate you to play right to the end of the game.”