It may not be necessarily true in the professional ranks, but in high school sports, the comforts of home often do provide a clear advantage.
So it was for the top-ranked Haddonfield Memorial High School’s girls soccer squad, which ran the table on three consecutive playoff matches as host by topping 10-seed West Deptford, 3-2, on Nov. 22. It was the team’s second consecutive Group 2 sectional championship.
In front of a small cadre of parents and immediate family members due to COVID-19 restrictions, Sara Smith and senior captain Katie McCormick scored roughly a minute apart late in the second half, with McCormick netting the game winner to cap the Bulldawgs’ cruise through the South West B bracket.
“We have 15 seniors, and for them to get their last win and last games at home, it’s convenient, sure, but it’s exhilarating because you’re playing for your town, your school, and I know the girls used that as a motivating factor,” noted head coach Lori Quintavalle.
Following a first-round bye, the Bulldawgs opened the sectional postseason with a 1-0 decision over Audubon on Nov. 18, thanks to a first-half strike from McCormick. Coach Q’s crew then advanced to the championship with a 5-3 win over Bordentown two days later, with five different players collecting goals.
The final match came against Gloucester County foes more than 48 hours later, under the lights, on the Bulldawgs’ home turf. Down 2-1 with time running out, Smith evened things with about 4 ½ minutes remaining, on the redirect of a Sammie Gallo throw-in from approximately 10 yards away. McCormick stepped up to put Haddonfield ahead, nailing a shot under the crossbar just about a minute later.
“I could totally envision her, or anyone else of our forwards for that matter, to come through in that situation. But Katie is our go-to-goal scorer,” Quintavalle said. “As soon as she gets the ball around the 18, she knows she’ll get those chances and I know she’ll finish them.”
McCormick revealed that the moments before her score were a bit scary as West Deptford came close to scoring so quickly after Haddonfield knotted the game. But some fancy footwork as a result of hard work netted the desired result.
“I definitely did not mean to go bar down, but I knew if I got a shot on goal from that distance, it would go in,” she said. “I worked on my left foot all season; I knew it was a strong shot, and lucky that it went in where it did.”
Congratulations to the Haddonfield Girls Soccer coaches and players!
Back-to-Back Sectional Champs!
13th sectional title in the program's history! pic.twitter.com/33fFfsYVFV
— HMHS Athletics (@HMHSathletics) November 23, 2020
The Eagles, who reached the final contest for the first time since 2015 and who were trying to win their first title in seven years, had two quality chances to draw even in the final 90 seconds, but came up just short.
“Soccer is honestly hard because there are no timeouts, and you have to rely on past games, past experiences,” Quintavalle said about her club’s strategy and attitude down a goal with time a factor.
“Even against Bordentown, it was so back and forth with so many momentum shifts,” she added. “Because of that, the girls knew they could score quickly. So when we were down late, we knew we could get some hustle plays to generate some momentum.”
Haddonfield jumped on top early, as Allison Baxter took a cross from Keegan Douglas about 10 minutes in. West Deptford wasn’t able to answer until early in the second half, on Bailey Swietanski’s tally. The visitors climbed on top when Jaci Gismondi hooked a free kick from atop the 18, around the wall, and into the net as the clock ticked under 10 ½ minutes left in regulation.
Snapped back to attention, the Bulldawgs controlled play, generating three prime scoring chances over the next several minutes before Smith punched one home.
“It was definitely the craziest finish to a game in my whole career,” McCormick recalled. “Obviously there’s a lot of stress on me and our other two captains to carry the team. But this year it was a team effort: everyone stepped up to contribute.”
One factor McCormick admits helped her team through some roller coasters of emotion and momentum was finding ways to win the mental battle.
“It was about having that motivation to encourage our team to not focus on mistakes,” she noted. “It breaks your confidence a bit (to make a mistake or give up a goal where you know you might lose), but we knew the game wasn’t over until the final whistle, and we were able to push through it.”