Bears, in pursuit of first title since 1987, prove they belong

Guilford - Following her team's ascension to the state tournament semifinals earlier in the week, Stonington High School field hockey coach Jenna Tucchio went for a drive to let the win sink in and get a cup of coffee.

Before she realized it, she was headed up I-95 into Rhode Island.

There's no word yet whether Tucchio took another drive Tuesday night or where she might have ended up this time.

But her team, seeded sixth, is headed to the Class S state championship after a dominating 3-0 victory over No. 2 Immaculate of Danbury at Guilford High School.

It is Stonington's first championship appearance since 1991 and the first under Tucchio, in her ninth season as head coach.

"I've never had a team execute under pressure like this team does," she said. "This is a big stage. The expectation is we've never made it out of the semis.

"I told them, 'This is where we belong. We're good enough. You deserve a spot. But I think it took all season long, maybe after the Branford game (1-0 win on Oct. 13) before they thought, 'There might be something to coach's plan here.'"

The Bears (15-4) will meet No. 4 Haddam-Killingworth (17-2) in the championship game Saturday at Wethersfield High School at a time to be announced. H-K edged top-seeded and previously unbeaten Lauralton Hall of Milford 1-0.

Stonington last won a championship in 1987.

"Coach has been talking about pride and stuff in our team," said junior goalie Annie Knizeski, who made seven saves. "I felt good. I was focused."

Chloe Slater scored first for the Bears just 8 minutes, 38 seconds into the game, taking a pass from Libby Morrison off a penalty corner and slamming it into the goal cage, not slowed for an instant by a partial deflection off a defender.

From then on, with Tucchio screaming about "tempo," the game was all Stonington's. The Bears outshot Immaculate 15-8, allowing the Mustangs just two shots in the second half.

With approximately 14 minutes left in the first half, when Immaculate did have a series of opportunities, Knizeski made three straight saves, one while laying on the ground, to hold the Mustangs scoreless. Knizeski also stopped a breakaway by Immaculate star Samantha Hooker with 2:32 left in the half.

And Stonington, while adding second-half goals by Molly Crowley (Tia Lafrance-Boyce assisted) and Morrison on a rebound off the pads of Immaculate goalie Lexi Oskam, could have scored even more.

Oskam saved a penalty stroke by Slater with 19 minutes remaining and Crowley missed a wide open net after a pass from Morrison. Morrison finally scored the Bears' third goal with 2:35 left.

"It's great to have a great team behind your back," said Morrison, a junior and already Stonington's all-time leading scorer. "And it's great to play in a game where everyone on the field, the other team too, is an amazing player.

"One-nothing's not enough in field hockey. But once you get that first one it's a nice threshold that you got one, you can get it again and again."

Tucchio said 2-0 wasn't enough either, not with Immaculate having a player the caliber and with the quickness of Hooker.

"I had a feeling, though" Tucchio said of the potential third goal. "We were just putting too much pressure on them."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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