It was business as usual for the field hockey team on Thursday.
The Panthers defeated Hunterdon Central 4-1 at Governor Livingston High School to advance to the Group IV state championship game. Bridgewater will play on Sunday rival Eastern, which the team has played in the last seven championship games.
In a game that was close throughout, the Panthers were able to separate from Hunterdon Central in the second half. Afterwards, head coach Kathy DeBonis commented on the game that brought her team back to the Group IV final.
“I thought Hunterdon Central did a good job,” she said. “They really pressured us and really wanted to win today. They forced us into making some bad choices so I give them a lot of credit. They really stepped up for the battle.”
“We needed a little off-ball movement in our game,” she added. “Despite that, I think it has been a very good road to this point for us. Again, we’re just trying to preach the everyday skills. It is so much more than hockey for us and field hockey is just a platform that we use to try to help foster them to become great human beings and I am so proud of them.”
First-half goals were scored by Taylor Mygatt off of a corner, and Rachel Yaney who scored with 20 minutes remaining in the half. The Panthers surrendered one back later in the first half, but still entered halftime with a 2-1 lead.
Despite the lead, Hunterdon Central controlled the ball for much of the half and had a few opportunities to tie or even take the lead. DeBonis said she believed her team came out a little flat and, after making halftime adjustments, were able to play their game in the second half.
“We needed to cut to the ball,” she said. “I truly think that we forgot that we came here to win the game. I’m not sure if in the beginning we were here to win the game. We need to be excited about the game from the first whistle. We made the proper adjustments at halftime and played much better in the second half.”
A third goal was added by Kayla Sullivan off of a penalty shot that just made it under the crossbar. Mackenzie Krouse added the fourth and final goal off a rebound on a corner kick that sealed the game for the Panthers. Goalie Christen Piersanti was virtually untested, but racked up two saves.
With the win, DeBonis and her team make it back to the state final for the seventh straight year. Waiting for them is Eastern High School out of Cherry Hill, which has been a perennial field hockey powerhouse for the better part of a decade.
DeBonis will be leading her team yet again in a championship game against Eastern. She said she understands the challenges that come with playing this team, but is confident the girls will be prepared for the game.
“They are a powerhouse,” she said of Eastern. “They are perennially top of the top and they are a well-oiled machine. They are just a great hockey team and they do the simple things to perfection which makes them tough. We’re excited and it’s always one of our goals to get to this game, but all season we have preached taking it one game at a time. We have done a great job at that this year.”
What may be the difference this year from previous years is the individual talent. With a strong core of players such as Catherine Caro, Yaney and others, DeBonis believes that this may be her most talented team.
“All of my teams are different and unique in their own way,” DeBonis said. “I think this is one of my closest knit teams because they really love being together and playing as one. This is probably individually my most talented team.”
Now in her 17th season, DeBonis and the Panthers have yet another opportunity to play for a title. With all of her accomplishments, DeBonis still couldn’t help but show her excitement for the opportunity and challenge to play Eastern for the state championship.
“It’s an honor to play for this championship,” she said. “It shows the hard work and dedication that the girls put in. It’s not just the girls either, but the parents and all of my coaches from varsity all the way down to the middle school."
The Panthers will play for the Group IV Championship against Eastern on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Toms River East High School.