All eyes were on Lenape junior goalkeeper Kayleigh Kmet as she stepped in front of the cage for the biggest moment of her field hockey career.
In her first year as starting goalie for the Indians, Kmet had made 146 saves, including nine during regulation and overtime of last Thursday’s Central Jersey Group 4 championship against Rancocas Valley.
After 60 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime, Lenape and Rancocas Valley were tied at 1-1 and in the middle of a penalty shootout to decide the championship. The Indians, up 4-3 in the shootout, needed just one more save from Kmet for the win.
“It’s a lot of pressure on me, but I have my team behind me,” Kmet said. “They’re always there for me. I’m really proud that I could show up and be there for them because they’re always there for me.”
A split second after Rancocas Valley senior Caroline Beairtsto let the deciding shot fly, Kmet stuck her right leg out for a kick save. She got enough of the ball to keep it out of the cage and clinch the Indians second sectional title in three years.
Upon making her game-winning save, Kmet leaped into the air and sprinted toward her teammates, who mobbed her near the cage.
“She killed it,” senior captain Megan McKenna said. “I love Kay. I couldn’t ask for a better goalie to have this season. She improved her skills tremendously from the beginning of the season. She always has something nice to say and is always caring.”
“We worked hard, since Aug. 12,” Kmet said. “We went to Saturday practice. We train. We run. We deserve this more than anyone.”
Lenape needed every ounce of energy and determination to pull out a victory last Thursday. The Indians got a first half goal from junior Allie Halfpenny a little more than 11 minutes into the game to take a 1-0 lead, but Rancocas Valley tied it 6:05 into the second half on a goal from Olivia Greer. What followed was a tight, drama-filled 43-plus minutes of field hockey where players on both teams had to push themselves to the limit.
“You can’t coach that,” head coach Sarah Scannell said of her team’s gritty performance. “They just had to dig deep and find it within themselves and overcome exhaustion and frustration and more exhaustion. It’s a battle of guts, mental toughness. That’s been a theme of our season, being mentally tough in a really really hard moment.”
“We’re all so mentally tough,” McKenna added. “I think it comes from the team bonding that we do. We have a spark in us that I think no other team can bring out as much as we can.”
Lenape found itself facing defeat in a number of moments late in regulation, including one with less than three minutes remaining. Rancocas Valley had a great opportunity when junior Kaitlyn Bowker launched an aerial shot toward the Indians’ net. Kmet made arguably her biggest save of the game when she leaped up to knock down Bowker’s aerial shot with a pad and keep the game tied at one.
“I saw it off her stick,” Kmet said. “I needed to back up, just run to the cage … just get it right back and I got a pad on it. It was amazing.”
Lenape’s victory was the second time in three years the team won the Central Jersey Group 4 title over Rancocas Valley. In 2017, the Indians edge the Red Devils, 1-0, for what was then the team’s first sectional title since 2003.
It wasn’t long ago when the Indians were one of the weaker teams in the highly-competitive Olympic Conference. Prior to 2017, Lenape finished with a losing record in each of the past seven seasons and had won as few as two games in 2015. Now, the Indians have recorded a .500 record or better in three consecutive seasons and have doubled the number of sectional titles in the program’s history from two to four. The days of field hockey being an afterthought on the Lenape sports scene appear to be over.
“I feel like now, people are starting to notice us,” McKenna said. “We have a student section at the game, we have posters now. It’s becoming really fun team for people to watch and see us succeed.”