Hand Beats Branford on Penalty Strokes in SCC Field Hockey Final
Hand and Branford have played a lot of great field hockey games against each other over the years, and their recent meeting in the SCC Tournament championship game was perhaps the best—and certainly the most dramatic—of the bunch. It was intense contest that saw neither the Tigers and nor the Hornets back down an inch as they battled to a scoreless stalemate through 60 minutes of regulation and three 10-minute overtime periods, forcing the winner to be decided by penalty strokes. Hand outscored Branford 4-2 in the penalty stroke session to get a 1-0 win at Guilford High School on Nov. 4, marking the Tigers’ first SCC Tournament title since 2014 and their third overall.
No. 3 seed Hand, which earned two wins against Branford during the regular season, improved to 16-1-2 this year. The top-seeded Hornets, who won the SCC Tournament last season, moved to 15-3-0-1. Both teams are competing in the Class M State Tournament that gets underway this week.
Each side gets to pick five players to take their best shot at the opposing goalie during penalty strokes. With Hand leading 3-2 entering the fifth and final round, senior captain Sophie Schreck stepped to the 7-yard line and deposited her shot in the back of the cage to give her team the victory and a SCC title.
“I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it,” said Schreck, who captains the Tigers alongside Abi Barry. “The whole team was so excited and it reflected onto me. It was a great feeling.”
Hand Head Coach Sue Leckey said that all 28 of her varsity players are heavily invested in what the Tigers are trying to accomplish this season. She added that her athletes have the right mindset that’s required to reign atop such a quality conference.
“They’re fighters, and you have to fight to beat Cheshire and Branford. If you don’t, you can’t win the SCC,” said Leckey, whose team earned a 3-2 win over Cheshire in the semifinal round. “The SCC is deep and strong, and so our kids know that they have to practice hard every day, so that when they play teams like Branford on days like this, they might be able to come out on top. They love the game, they really care about each other, and they know when they have tough opponents, they have to rise up to that team or they won’t come out successful.”
Hand Kylie Gargiulo rose up to the challenge by making two big saves during penalty strokes and five total on the day. One of 12 seniors on the team, Gargiulo was thrilled that the Tigers persevered and came away victorious from such a nail-biting game.
“It’s an amazing feeling, especially with this great group of girls,” Gargiulo said. “We haven’t done this since freshman year. It’s just amazing, especially how it ended, too. It was so stressful, but the outcome of the game was tremendous for us.”
On the other side, Branford Head Coach Cathy McGuirk expressed great pride about the way her athletes competed by taking the Tigers down to the wire in a classic SCC final.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of them for how far they’ve gone from the beginning of the season to now and how hard they had to work in this game to get where they got. They’ve got grit, they’ve got guts, they’ve got intensity, and they’ve got team. And that’s what you need to do what you do in a game like this,” said McGuirk. “They played their hearts out, they played their tails off, they helped each other in so many ways. It was just a wonderful game.”
Hand had a couple of scoring chances in the final minute of regulation as junior Taylor Leckey, who was named the SCC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, took one shot that was deflected over the cage and another that didn’t make it through the pack up front. The Tigers were awarded a corner as time expired, but the play didn’t materialize, and the game went to overtime.
Instead of the usual 11 vs. 11 format, overtime is contested 7 vs. 7. It’s a sudden victory situation where the first goal wins it. Both clubs started getting a few more offensive opportunities as the game opened up a bit. Toward the end of the first OT, Branford’s senior goalie Erica Klarman made a couple of saves to keep the game scoreless. Branford had two corners in the second overtime, but neither chance produced a goal. Following a scoreless third overtime, Hand and Branford were going to penalty strokes to crown a conference champion.
Hand sophomore Jacqui Sandor had the first attempt and scored on a blistering shot that rang high in the cage. Hornets’ senior captain Sabrina Torcellini followed with a goal that tied it at 1.
Starting off the next series, senior Nora McCarthy scored to give Hand a 2-1 advantage. Gargiulo followed with a save on Branford’s attempt to maintain the one-goal edge.
“I was stressed. It’s so much stress on a goalie,” said Gargiulo. “But we practice it all time at practice, so that really helped me, and having the team cheer me on kept me positive through it.”
Leckey then scored to make it 3-1 in favor of Hand, but senior captain Autumn McHenry followed with a goal for the Hornets that cut it to 3-2.
Klarman made a save for Branford on Hand’s next offering. The Hornets now had a shot to tie it, although their subsequent shot went wide.
Now, Schreck had the chance to win the game on the final series, and that’s exactly what she did by sending one high into the cage for a 4-2 command that locked down the SCC championship for the Tigers. Schreck said that her ability to stay poised under pressure helped her net the goal that sent off the Tigers’ celebration.
“All I was really thinking was, ‘Breathe, Sophie. Calm down,’” Schreck said. “When I think to myself that I’m going to have the winning goal, I miss it, so I just decided to calm down, stay composed, and that’s what really helped me get it in.”
Despite the defeat, Coach McGuirk was pleased to see her team go on another run in the SCC Tournament and knows that reaching the final in consecutive seasons is an achievement any squad can hang its hat on.
“This is eighth year of the tournament, and our team has made it into the semifinals every year and, the last two, we ended up in the finals. That’s a testament to what these kids are doing out here and how hard we’re trying to get them to work and to believe in themselves and do the little things to get them to play better,” McGuirk said. “To get the finals again, it makes you feel very proud and humble in a way that this is how good they can be.”
From the Sidelines
Previously in the SCC Tournament, Hand defeated No. 6 seed Hamden 3-0 in the quarterfinals on Oct. 31. Jacqui Sandor had two goals with one unassisted at 15:51 of the first half and another from Taylor Leckey and Erickson Richard at 24:01. Richard notched the Tigers final score of the day on assists from Leckey and Kathryn Donahey with 28 seconds left before halftime. Kylie Gargiulo made three saves.
Facing No. 2 seed Cheshire in the semifinals at Guilford High School the next day, Hand prevailed by the final of 3-1. Donahey got Hand on the board with a goal at 26:43 of the first half. Sophie Schreck then netted some insurance with a goal just more than a minute into the second half. Cheshire responded with a score three minutes later on a penalty corner, but the Tigers added another goal, and then held on to the lead to punch their ticket to the SCC Tournament final.
Branford posted a 5-1 win over No. 8 seed Amity in the SCC quarterfinals on Oct. 30. The Hornets notched three goals in the first half as Madison Acquarulo scored from Autumn McNenry, Molly Zaffino scored a goal from Sabrina Torcellini, and Zaffino then netted another on a LanLe Crotty assist. In the second half, Torcellini scored from Zaffino, and Crotty later scored a goal on an assist by Zaffino.
In the semifinal round, the Hornets claimed a 1-0 victory against No. 4 seed Guilford at Guilford High School. Torcellini scored the game’s lone goal of a corner at the 15:03 mark of the first half. Crotty sent the ball in, and then Torcellini took a strong shot that went to the right corner of the goal. Klarman made six saves for the Hornets. Branford had five shots on goal and six corners, while Guilford took 13 corners.