WASHINGTON TWP. (Morris) _ After taking a 1-0 lead 2:37 into the opening half, West Morris was feeling good about itself.
The Wolfpack, no doubt, was in a giddy state after extending that advantage to 2-0 with 10 minutes remaining before halftime. However, at the break, coach Courtney Barnett suggested her squad take it down a few notches emotionally and continue to play hard.
West Morris heeded Barnett's advice and did both, allowing it to survive a late penalty-stroke goal by Wayne Valley and emerge a 2-1 winner in a North Jersey Section 1, Group III semifinal on Tuesday, Oct. 30.
"Being up 2-0 is the most dangerous lead," said Barnett, whose Wolfpack gained a berth in the sectional title game for the third consecutive season. "That's why we talked. Teams become complacent. I really felt we needed another one in the first half. I knew Wayne Valley would fight back and put some pressure on us. They didn't get to the semifinals by chance."
And, just as Barnett anticipated, the Indians weren't done. Wayne Valley edged closer, 2-1, when Kaitlyn McNutt converted off a penalty stroke, awarded because the ball hit off a defender's foot, with 1:13 remaining, putting a scare into the Wolfpack (15-3-2). From there, the Indians, injected with confidence, tried to go back into West Morris' end but the home team was unyielding.
"We have to remember to play the whole game, not a certain half," said Wolfpack left wing Jenna Leonhardt. "We've got to be all in for the whole game."
Sophomore Sophia Prata, the right wing and scorer of West Morris' first goal, agreed that the late goal jarred her and her teammates.
"Maybe we did get a little complacent," Prata said. "The game is over when the clock runs out, not when we're up by two or three goals."
The Wolfpack will have to keep that in mind on Thursday, Nov. 1 when they clash with Warren Hills, which is aiming for its seventh straight sectional crown. West Morris, whose last sectional championship was in 2012, fell to Warren Hills in 2016 and 2017 and will need to toil for a full 60 minutes.
Versus Wayne Valley, the Wolfpack came out strong as Prata connected off a corner. Caroline Compoli sent the ball to the left post from the top of the circle and Leonhardt touched it on the goal line before Prata knocked it in. Leonhardt followed up her assist with a goal. Again, Compoli initiated the scoring sequence with a powerful shot on goal. Leonhardt cut through the circle and jabbed the ball into the right corner, just out of the reach of the Indians' diving goalie.
"It was 1-0 and I was eager to score," Leonhardt said. "I don't like when it's that close."
The Wolfpack, who graduated five starters, are relishing the opportunity to go up against Warren Hills again. West Morris feels as if it was underestimated in the preseason.
"We took everything to heart," Prata said. "We worked 10 times harder to prove everyone wrong. To win this game is so cool. We played with so much heart. It's because of the girls we play on the team with. We play for each other and it brings us closer."
Leonardt, too, feels that West Morris is exactly where it should be.
"We were underdogs at the beginning of the season," she said. "We belong here. We can stick around and win. I'm excited about the final. We've got to play to win and not to lose."
It was more than Prata and Leonhardt. Junior Alex Belen was a force at right back. Belen made an interception in West Morris' end at the 16-yard line and took the ball 14 yards. That was critical, as the Wolfpack would soon tally their second goal. Sweeper Maddie Ligos was praised by Barnett for "being composed with the ball and making key stops." Ligos thrived under pressure.
"I think scoring early was really important," Barnett said. "That was big for us. We set the tempo in the first half and that helped us a lot."
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