No. 1 North Branford ousts Stonington in Class S field hockey semifinals
East Lyme — It's Colette Dreher's job on the Stonington High School field hockey team to fly out of the goal cage on opposing penalty corners in an attempt to break up the play.
“The shots come quick but we work on it all the time. Every day we work defensive corners. We've gotten pretty good at them,” Dreher said. “The direct shot is always the hardest part. Some teams have tricky plays they run, they trick us up a little.”
Then came what Dreher saw from North Branford on Tuesday night in the Class S state tournament semifinals at East Lyme High School.
“Their direct shots worked pretty well,” Dreher said. “Those weren't tricky. Those were scary.”
Top-seeded North Branford scored two second-half goals — the second by Amelia Raucci on a direct shot off a corner which she slammed into the back of the cage with a thud — to beat Stonington 2-0.
There were tears from the Stonington players, but nothing but admiration for an unbeaten North Branford team (20-0-1), led by veteran coach Babby Nuhn, which advanced to Saturday's championship game to meet No. 2 Granby Memorial.
It is North Branford's first appearance in a state final since winning the Class S championship in 2006.
North Branford limited the usually dynamic Stonington offense, which scored 80 goals this season, to just one shot and amassed 13 corners to none for the Eastern Connecticut Conference champion Bears (17-4). Stonington was making its fifth semifinal appearance in six years.
“They're a beautiful team,” Stonington coach Jenna Tucchio said of North Branford. “My kids played a good game. They played hard. They used all the skills that they know how to use. But North Branford was just tremendous. The speed … they were lightning fast. Their receiving skills were just beautiful, I mean gorgeous. Just they're a tremendous team.”
“I'm rooting for them (in the final),” Dreher said. “They're a really good team.”
Stonington had its only shot early in the game, a ball which almost seemed to get behind North Branford goalie Jordan Regan.
Just before halftime, however, North Branford unloaded a series of four penalty corners, three inside the final minute. Stonington cleared them all, one, finally, after time had elapsed. Yet North Branford never let go of that momentum, keeping Stonington on the defensive throughout the second half.
“Erin (Craig) dove into the goal and saved one of them,” Dreher said. “There's not a day when Aliza (Bell, Stonington goalie) is not amazing.”
Bell finished with 12 saves.
North Branford had its first corner in the second half just 45 seconds in and began hammering away once again.
The Thunderbirds struck with 21 minutes, 28 seconds left in the half, with Ava Galdenzi scoring on a rebound off Bell. The final goal came at the 8:38 mark, scored by Raucci on an assist by Galdenzi.
“I think they just were quicker,” Tucchio said. “They were flat out faster. My kids were doing everything they could to generate some attack. Their speed was unbelievable. … I could tell they were fast (when I scouted them), but they didn't show this kind of speed.”
Tucchio shared an embrace with Nuhn following the game.
“Jenna and I are very good friends,” said Nuhn, in her 44th season. “We respect each other as coaches and as human beings.”
Nuhn characterized this as a young North Branford team, which has been working tirelessly to reach the final.
“We're truly one for all, all for one. We don't have any superstars; we never believe in that,” Nuhn said. “… We needed to get our enthusiasm going (in the second half). We always believe it's a full game. I'm super proud of them.”
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