TOMS RIVER— head field hockey coach Kathie DeBonis has led her team to the NJSIAA Group IV final for the last seven years of her 16-year tenure with the program.
While it took 10 seasons for DeBonis to reach the first championship game with the Panthers, it has taken almost as many attempts to win the first one thanks to the juggernaut that has been on the other side of the field each time.
The Panthers faced off against Eastern for the seventh straight year Sunday, and for the seventh straight year, came up short as the Vikings won 5-2 to claim their 13th straight Group IV championship.
"I like to think we're getting closer," DeBonis said. "This is the first time we've scored two goals in a game against them in the seven times we've played them and I thought we had a chance to score some more. We had some opportunities we didn't take advantage of and certainly, against Eastern, those are opportunities you have to take if you're going to have a chance to beat them."
For the first time in the seven-game series, Bridgewater made the defending champions sweat by scoring 35 seconds before halftime to tie the score at 1. Junior forward Catherine Caro scored the first of her two goals on a restart following a counter-attack.
Caro tracked the ball down, made a move to her right toward the middle of the field and fired a shot to the right side of the cage from 10 yards out to even the score at 1 and send the Panthers into the halftime huddle with a renewed sense of confidence.
"That goal was big for our confidence," DeBonis said. "The girls were really psyched at halftime. We talked about keeping our composure throughout and that we can't let anything get to us."
The Camden County school, however, answered like a 13-time champion by scoring 3:41 into the second half and adding two more goals over the next 8:47 to take a commanding 4-1 lead.
Caro managed to score again with 3:43 left to pull within two goals, but Eastern squashed any hope of a Bridgewater comeback on a goal by junior Emma Johansson off a cross from freshman Austyn Cuneo.
"They were as talented as they are most years," DeBonis said. "Their freshman (Cuneo) is phenomenal. She is going to be a player to watch, and actually, she is a player to watch right now. She is beautiful skill and athleticism with the stick. Really impressive."
DeBonis' praise for Cuneo played out in the form of a two-goal, one-assist performance in her first ever group championship game. She scored Eastern's third and fourth goals, with the fourth coming off a pretty crossover move to the inside capped by a strong finish to the far lower-right corner of the cage.
Junior goalkeeper Christen Piersanti helped keep Bridgewater-Raritan in the game for most of the game by making 14 saves, a start contrast to the two made by Eastern's Alana Barry.
"She was busy in there," DeBonis said. "She made a lot of saves. She did a nice job stepping up."
Piersanti and the defense were under constant pressure over the course of the game, facing 24 Vikings shots and defending 15 penalty corners. The Panthers kept Eastern off the scoreboard for the first 22:17 before Carly Celkos scored on the Vikings' ninth shot of the half.
The Panthers' offense came mostly off counter-attacks and the second goal by Caro started on a penalty corner. Junior Rachel Yaney took the initial shot and Caro controlled the rebound and fired in her second goal to keep Bridgewater-Raritan alive.
With eight of Sunday's starters returning next season, DeBonis is already looking forward to the future.
"We have 10 girls on the team who are first-time letter-winners," DeBonis said. "The truth is, we got to the finals with some very inexperienced players playing key roles.
"The big difference between us and Eastern is they have excellent feeder programs. We don't have those kinds of programs, so most of our girls don't start playing until the seventh or eighth grade. There is a lot of talent here and if we can get more girls playing earlier, we can be an even better program."