GA’s Catherine McFadden (right) a senior co-captain, keeps an eye on Hill School junior Kennedy Cliggett, who transferred in from Mount St. Joseph Academy this year. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

For Germantown Academy’s field hockey program, 2018 was a banner year. The Patriots won the Inter-Ac League championship for the first time in 10 years and reached the finals of the Pennsylvania Independent Schools tournament, finally falling to Episcopal Academy in a one-on-one shootout.

Although GA returned most of its players from last year’s team this fall, the Pats struggled during the first month of the 2019 campaign. They raised their game significantly in October, though, and last Tuesday evening in Pottstown, they ended their season just one round short of where they’d finished a year earlier.

Top-seeded Hill School scored once in each half of a PAIS semifinal match with GA, which had come into the tournament as the fifth seed and had beaten number four Agnes Irwin, 2-1, to set up last week’s meeting with Hill. Hill had won the Mid-Atlantic Prep League title, and brought a 17-2 record into the contest.

Although Germantown only lost two players through graduation from 2018, one of them was U.S. junior national team player Sammy Popper. Now at Princeton, Popper immediately became a starter for the Tigers and is currently the team’s second-leading scorer.

Aside from her statistical contributions at GA (179 career goals and 417 points), Popper provided a psychological boost to her teammates, who knew that in every game, their team would have the best player on the field.

As the 2019 season started, GA had an experienced group led by nine seniors, but at the end of September, the Patriots found themselves with an overall record of 2-7-2.

Fifth-year head coach Jackie Connard related, “We started the season playing nice hockey and passing the ball pretty well, but we had a hard time finding the net. We had relied on Sammy so much during the last four years that nobody else had to be the one to score the goals. We worked on that a lot, just having the confidence to take the shot. That improved, and even our defense improved along with it.”

The month of September actually ended with a respectable loss, a 1-0 defeat at the hands of an Episcopal squad that would win the Inter-Ac title. GA would go 6-4 after that, including the final loss to Hill. The Patriots avenged early Inter-Ac setbacks against Agnes Irwin and the Academy of Notre Dame, and succumbed to Episcopal by a single goal once more.

On this shot by Patriots junior Sophie Towne (lower left), the ball got by Hill School defender Tanner Eccleson (right) but not goalie Hayley Gable. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

At Hill School last Tuesday, GA encountered an athlete familiar to hockey players and fans in this area. North Carolina recruit Kennedy Cliggett came out of Wyncote’s Ancillae Assumpta Academy and then played two years of varsity hockey at Mount St. Joseph Academy before transferring to Hill this fall as a junior.

Her older sister, Haley, is a senior co-captain at the Mount, and in another Tuesday evening game last week, she was out in Hershey with the Magic playing in an opening-round PIAA state tournament match. Having won a play-in game over Gwynedd Mercy to become the fifth and final District 1 team to make States, the Mount fell to powerful District 3 champion Palmyra High School, 5-0.

At Hill School, junior Jo Palde got the Rams on the board less than three minutes into the match. The count was still 1-0 at halftime, as the goal was followed by relatively even play between the teams for the remainder of the first period.

Olivia McMichael, GA’s senior goalie, withstood three consecutive Hill penalty corners as the second half got underway. Later on, two corners and some follow-up offense by the Patriots yielded one shot, which came back off the pads of the hosts’ sophomore goalie, Hayley Gable.

About 10 minutes in, each of the teams was hit with penalty cards, but before Hill’s five-minute fine expired, charges by the Rams forced GA’s McMichael to thwart threats by Palde and fellow junior Logan Clouser.

Hill continued to press the attack and earned two corners around the 15-minute mark, but its insurance goal would not come on a set piece. Instead, Palde dribbled the ball all the way through the circle to score, cementing the 2-0 final with 13:50 remaining in the game. Just when GA needed to regroup, it was slapped with another card. Down the stretch, McMichael earned the last two of her 11 saves in the game.

McMichael will be graduating from the GA squad, along with co-captains Catherine McFadden and Grace Pacitti and fellow seniors Annabel Brewer, Lily Ernst, Ella Henry, Madison Kurtz, Maddi Ota and Jordan Roche.

“This will be a hard senior class to say goodbye to,” Connard said. “There are nine of them, and five have started since their freshman year.”

Among the young players coming up are two freshmen on the varsity roster who are the sisters of GA upperclassmen Claire McMichael and Gracen Brandt.

“We’ve got a large and strong freshman class this year,” Connard noted. “In addition to the two on varsity already, there are other girls who really had standout seasons for the JV team.”