MOUNTAIN LAKES _ After gaining a one-goal lead in the opening half, Mountain Lakes' objective was to clog up the scoring circle.
That meant that all of the Lakers, intent on denying Lenape Valley another score, were packed into the area immediately in front of the goalcage. The plan was successful but caused the Patriots to be awarded corner after corner in the North Jersey Section 1, Group I quarterfinal.
Second-seeded Mountain Lakes was on edge for much of the last 30 minutes but managed to repel nine corner attempts and came out with a 2-1 victory over 10th-seeded Lenape Valley on Thursday, Oct. 29.
Shalom Kercher and Alison Chow provided the offensive firepower for the Lakers, who will meet third-seeded Belvidere on Tuesday, Nov. 1. Mountain Lakes (11-6-1) last appeared in a sectional semifinal in 2013 before it went on to claim the title.
"Lenape Valley put up a great fight," Lakers coach Coleen Buckley said. "We held our own. We clogged up the circle. We were fortunate to turn everything away. Our girls don't quit. They did not want to have another goal score."
The unyielding corner unit was comprised of sophomores Isabella Fragomeni and Macara Desai, who shared the flyer and trail responsibilities, and seniors Holly Smith and Sydney McDonald. And there was Jess Menack, the goalie in the second half. Menack made two saves while Aline Miller turned back one shot in the opening half.
"Our counterattack was great after Lenape Valley's penalty corners," Buckley said. "We got the ball out. When they came up the left side, they got the ball out."
Buckley lauded the play of McDonald and Lili Laderach, the Lakers' backs. McDonald and Laderach made stops and cleared the ball.
The stalwart showing on "D" is certainly good news for Mountain Lakes, which has triumphed in four of its last five games and six of its last eight. The Lakers have overcome much adversity this season and thrived despite illnesses and injuries. Their preseason varsity roster listed only eight names. The squad benefited when Jenny Smith, Holly's twin sister, switched to field hockey from soccer.
"The resiliency of this group is amazing," Buckley said. "We've got everyone back but we're still not 100 percent."
Kercher, a senior playing left wing at the time of her goal, converted 4:15 into the first half. Julia Aasmaa passed the ball up to Kercher, who dribbled a bit to draw the goalie out before sending the ball into the left corner of the cage. Bailey Connery knocked in her goal off a rebound, knotting the score for the Patriots 5:56 before the break.
It didn't take Mountain Lakes (11-6-1) to regain the advantage as Chow, a junior wing, registered what proved to the gamewinner 1:35 later. Chow, who subbed in, received a cross pass from Kercher and swept the ball across the goal line.
The second half of the game was tense as the visiting Patriots sought to pull even. However, the Lakers were stubborn on defense and would not allow Lenape Valley the equalizer. There were moments when Mountain Lakes held back and Buckley addressed it with 12 minutes remaining.
"We talked to the kids about playing to win and not playing to lose," she said. "We wanted them to go to the ball and not wait and let the play happen in front of them. We were back on our heels a bit. We haven't really played like that. Maybe it was tournament jitters."
Now, two wins stand between the Lakers and a championship.
"Records don't matter in the state tournament," Buckley said. "We're all 0-0. This is a nice group. I can't wait to see how far they can take it."
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