Heads held high: Falcons season-ending loss less bitter, more sweet

Burlington Township High School’s field hockey season once again ended with a loss at Moorestown, but the waves the program has made in the last half dozen years are remarkable. Departing seniors know the team is in good hands.

Corinne Harper, Nicole Stewart, Grace Farnan, and Emily Robles are among those to congratulate Haley Bucci after the senior goalkeeper saved a penalty stroke to keep the game scoreless in the first half of Thursday’s Central Jersey Group 3 championship. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Moorestown High School’s highly decorated field hockey team — it’s won five straight sectional titles, and only one other program in New Jersey has more state championships — posed with its new trophy and danced along the turf Thursday night.

The Quakers beat Burlington Township 7–0 to collect their most recent sectional trophy and advance to the state semifinals. They are favorites to keep marching forward.

But even as Moorestown basked in the glow of its latest championship, its counterparts literally held their heads high in postgame handshakes. There were smiles and no tears, congratulatory wishes and no bitterness.

Although a clutch save from senior goalie Haley Bucci on a penalty stroke kept the game scoreless early, the final result wasn’t close in the Central Jersey Group 3 championship game. But if you took a step back and examined the bracket, the entirety of the 2018 season, and the trajectory of the Falcons field hockey program, you can’t help but be impressed.

Just three years ago, Burlington Township was a .500 team, finishing the 2015 season at 8–8–1. And that was an upgrade from what preceded it: the Falcons went 13–51–3 from 2010 to 2013.

Burlington Township coach Stephanie Fuchilla-Goracy addresses her team during a second half timeout in the Central Jersey Group 3 championship game at Moorestown. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

In the span of a few short years, Burlington Township’s program went from being a non-contender racking up double-digit losses yearly to being a team that’s almost expected to meet mighty Moorestown in the sectional finals.

The 2018 season, when the Falcons went 16–4–1, marked the third straight year they were runner-up to Moorestown for the sectional championship.

“It is very nice to say that,” Burlington Township coach Stephanie Fuchilla-Goracy said of the new, yearly expectations of advancing to the sectional finals.

But how do you go from a cellar dweller with little hope of postseason play to a sectional bracket buster in fewer than five years?

“It’s not one specific thing,” she said. “We have really great girls that have experience. We have a rec program now. A lot of them play club. And we had some experienced players who mentored them and took them under their wings, so it’s a bunch of different components that helped get them to this.

“I don’t say we expect to come back here, but that’s always our goal. When we start in July doing our non-mandatory (practices), that’s something we’re always talking about, how do we get there, what are the steps, X, Y, and Z. They put in so much work. So it’s really all of them putting it all together and showing they really want it. That’s what it comes down to.”

Township’s Makenna Lehenaff battles for possession of the ball with Moorestown’s Caroline Brinkman late in the second half of the Central Jersey Group 3 championship game. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

What’s also remarkable is Burlington Township put together another stellar season despite losing a player who was arguably the best in program history when Gracyn Banks graduated last spring. Banks, who plays at the University of Pennsylvania, was a three-time team MVP in high school and, as a senior, set school records in goals, assists and points.

The Falcons, somehow, managed to improve on last year’s record (14–6–1) after losing their best player.

“It’s definitely something people weren’t anticipating,” Fuchilla-Goracy said. “We just restructured how we were set up on the field. We used to be 4–2, now we’re 4–3. So we restructured our midfield. The girls stepped up into it and really shined this year.”

What Burlington Township has managed to do is not only turn around their program into a winner, but also a winner with staying power. As with most high school programs, that begins with where the kids are playing before they reach high school.

Burlington Township’s Macie Werynski tries to gain possession with Moorestown’s Madison Sever and Ava Cickavage closing in. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Former Burlington Township High School coach Stacey Varanyak started a rec league program in the township not that long ago. It was an important start.

“I started playing in fourth grade,” said Burlington Township senior captain Macie Werynski. “The whole rec program and how they bring kids up is really important, especially for going into high school.”

“It gets kids interested,” Fuchilla-Goracy said. “We don’t have middle school sports, so that’s an issue we battle especially with all of the schools around here that do. (Rec league) helps, and we try to involve the younger girls in everything we do. … And the more girls get excited, the more they’re playing club. I know in my first year here four years ago, we had two girls play club. Now a third of the girls play club. It’s not where everyone else is, but it’s a big difference.

“And you can see it, especially when we play on turf. Some of our girls play better on turf. And some of them are freshmen, and you’re like, how does that happen, we don’t have turf [laughs]. But it’s definitely a difference we’re seeing. There’s more awareness for the sport now.”

Moorestown’s Morgan Darmo, Burlington Township back Melissa Pallen and goalkeeper Haley Bucci all converge for a ball in front of the Falcons cage. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Burlington Township lost to Moorestown in its final game of the 2018 season and it wasn’t nearly as close to the 3–2 defeat they played the Quakers to at home last month. In one sense, it was a repeat of the same script, seeing their season end to Moorestown for the sixth straight year.

But it’s clear the Falcons field hockey program is continuing to see progress, which makes those season-ending defeats a little less bittersweet for the departing seniors.

“I’m sad that it’s over. But it’s been a long season and we killed it,” said Werysnki, one of three Burlington Township players, along with Hannah Heil and Bucci, who will play at Ramapo College next season. “And I couldn’t be more happy and more proud of my team. It means so much to me, especially with all the underclassmen on this team that I’ve been working so hard with in the past couple of years, knowing they’re going to go on and continue their athletic careers and keep pushing Burlington Township to be the best they can be. That makes me happy, knowing they’re going to keep this program going.”

Burlington Township’s Luisa Hinds tries to prevent Moorestown’s Ava Cickavage from moving the ball up field. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)
Burlington Township senior midfielder Macie Werynski lunges for a ball while Moorestown’s Madison Sever attempts to play it up field. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)
Burlington Township defenders Emily Robles, Grace Faman, and Melissa Pallen crowd into the cage with goalkeeper Haley Bucci during a Moorestown penalty corner. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)
Burlington Township coach Stephanie Fuchilla-Goracy takes in first half action of the Central Jersey Group 3 championship game at Moorestown with an assistant coach. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)