It was hard enough that the Belmont High School Field Hockey had to board a bus and travel for 45 minutes to play in their playoff opener against Northeastern Conference championships Danvers High School on Thursday, Oct. 30.
The potential difficulties of playing on the road in the MIAA Div. 2 North sectionals were only heightened when the Marauders saw the pitch they would be battling.
Grass. While a decade ago playing on a natural surface was just part of the game, today, with the rapid proliferation of synthetic Tuff fields, many teams will not play on grass for an entire season.
Not only was the surface uneven, the field outside of Danvers’ newly constructed high school had a noticeable drop from the north to the south end of the field.
Danvers’ Head Coach Jill McGinnity was banking on that familiarity to pressure Belmont for the entire game.
“Field hockey is a completely different sport on grass than turf, so being on grass right away certainly helps because we practice on it all the time,” she told the Salem (Massachusetts) Daily News. “We’d love to be able to make a nice little run (in the postseason.”
Belmont’s head coach, Jessica Smith, was not as enamored playing a tournament game on the natural stuff.
“This is a … ,” Smith said, finishing the sentence with a colorful term to describe the field’s condition.
“Grass slows everything down, so you have to hit much longer balls to move upfield,” said Smith. “And we are a pass-oriented team, so we have to make some adjustments.”
Despite reservations on how the grass would impact their game, Belmont’s higher skill level and total team approach soon showed itself as the Marauders defeated the Falcon’s, 2-0, to advance to the quarterfinals.
The Marauders will play the winners of the match today, Oct. 31, between second-seed Andover High School and 15th-ranked Methuen High. The time and place for the quarters have yet to be determined.
Due to upsets of the third-seed Reading, Wilmington and 11th seed Lexington, Belmont and Watertown (who play in Division 2) are the last remaining Middlesex League teams in the tournament.
After a cautious start, Belmont’s quality soon dominated the Falcon’s athleticism as the Marauders controlled possession in Danvers’s end of the field for the final 20 minutes of the first half.
Led by midfielders senior Suzannne Noone and Olivia Castangno and junior Serena Nally occupying the center of the pitch, Belmont clogged the long-ball passing lanes as Danvers attempted to break into the Belmont end.
With some time on the ball, Belmont’s forwards adjusted their passing technique with slightly harder shots as the receiving players moved to the passes. Out on the wings, seniors Beth Young and Haley Sawyer were finding a straight move to the goal was paying dividends.
Belmont could concentrate upfront as its back line proved a tough challenge for the Falcon attack. Junior defender Molly Thayer and senior center back Emma Pejko stalked any forward with possession entering their zone, using good stick technique to knock balls from their opponents.
Belmont’s pressure soon resulted in a series of penalty corners – the Marauders would have seven in the first half while Danvers was shutout – allowing sophomore midfielder/defender AnnMarie Habelow to move up to the 16-yard scoring circle and become the focal point of the attack.
Belmont’s first score occurred when Habelow took a shot in close that got by Danvers’ goalie Julie Webster, which was steered in by junior forward Kerri Lynch with eight minutes remaining in the half.
Both Sawyer and Habelow nearly doubled the lead but for a new rule (Habelow’s backhand shot which was “rising with acceleration” is now considered a dangerous play) and a leg save from Webster.
With time running down and Smith urging the girls’ to “Get one more,” the team responded as Habelow’s directed a shot to the stick of sophomore forward Julia Chase five meters out for the goal with a minute remaining in the first.
It was 10 minutes into the second 30 minutes before Belmont goalkeeper senior Kate Saylor made her first save as Belmont’s offense peppered Webster, with another Habelow score taken away due to the new dangerous rule.
Danvers did begin to find their range late in the half, requiring the Belmont “D” to chase down some long breaks. Saylor made a strong pad save off junior forward Kristen McCarthy with help from Castagno and Habelow got her stick low to stop another shot from McCarthy.
“I love this team because everyone touches the ball throughout the game. We have our superstars, but they know we play better as a team that builds up from the back and work everyone into the game,” said Smith.