by Andrew Garda

When it comes to battles between Montclair High School and Montclair Kimberley Academy, it’s always going to be a good game regardless of which sport is being played.

That was absolutely true Monday afternoon when the MKA field hockey team visited Watchung Field to take on the Mounties. The tightly contested match went into overtime, when senior center-forward Sam Van Siclen struck the winning goal past Cougars goalie GiGi Jacobson.

Mounties coach Mary Pat Mercuro was very pleased with the way her team rallied after a slow first half.

“We said ‘refuse to lose,’” she said. “These kids just really stepped up and started playing, anticipating and stepping to the ball and wanting every ball.”

That first half was nearly the end for the Mounties, though, as they struggled to play the ball into the Cougars’ end. Every move MHS made, MKA had an answer for, and it looked like MKA was in control.

The Cougars took an early lead with a goal by junior Kirsten Zueg off a nice pass from senior Alix Talkow. While Mounties goalie Anjali Abram did a good job throughout most of the game, she couldn’t stop Zueg’s shot. For much of the game, it looked like that could be the difference in the game; the 1-0 score stood as the teams headed into halftime.

The Cougars are a well-coordinated team, and the ball flows well for them. They have excellent stick handling and do a great job finding the open teammate on the edges of the field. Defensively, they consistently found ways to disrupt the Mounties by the midfield mark and when MHS did get the ball in the Cougars’ end, defender Amanda Mack was usually there to knock the ball away if not steal it outright.

MKA's Alix Talkow, number 1, battles MHS' Jen Heath for possession of the ball during Monday's match.
MKA's Alix Talkow, number 1, battles MHS' Jen Heath for possession of the ball during Monday's match.

The second half started and the Cougars continued to play strong field hockey. Try as they might, the Mounties were unable to mount any offense and as time continued to tick off the clock, you could tell they were getting frustrated.

Mercuro called a timeout just after the 12-minute mark to rally her team but when they took the field again, it seemed like more of the same.

Until two minutes later, when momentum decided to shift in the Mounties’ favor.

It started with a goal by Sosi Korian.

“I’m pretty sure for our first goal, it [started with] a hit from the 25-yard line by Addie Temkin,” Van Siclen recalled after the game. “I was on pads so I saw it go straight to post and [then] I saw Sosi get a great touch on that.”

“It wasn’t an easy goal,” Mercuro said. “[Korian] really worked for that. The whole group of them worked on keeping the ball in.”

“That’s when the momentum really shifted,” defender Eve Naturale said.

Naturale said one of the reasons the team had been slow offensively was because one of the captains, Missy Wrede, was home with a stomach bug. Wrede had been responsible for many of the goals scored during the 2016 season and, with Van Siclen, had generated offensive flow. Without her, MKA could focus on containing Van Siclen, which ground things to a halt offensively for the Mounties.

“Once that first goal happens,” Naturale said, “everything shifted and we all knew we could do it. We wanted to win. We wanted it more.”

The Mounties began to pressure the Cougars more, forcing MKA into making little mistakes — bad passes, poor stick handling, all while MHS began to find its rhythm and move the ball more effectively. The Mounties began making quick dashes into the Cougars’ end, finding ways to attack where they had been stalled before.

For MKA coach Gia Nappi, it was frustrating to watch her team begin to fall back on its heels.

“[It was] a mental breakdown that we’ll have to work on,” she said after the loss. “It’s not that we don’t have the skill or the fitness, it’s more like a mindset.”

Disappointed as she was, Nappi says there’s plenty of time to course correct that defect.

“It’s early in the season, so that will change as they grow together as a team and get more comfortable with each other. Unfortunately, we play some of these tougher games early in the season and we take a loss.”

While the Mounties were spending more time in the Cougars’ end of the field, they couldn’t finish, and as regulation time ground to a close, the Cougars seemed to find their flow again. The two teams spent much of the last two minutes of regulation trading offensive rushes, to no avail.

After a brief break, the two teams headed into overtime and the Mounties picked up where they left off, attacking the Cougars and swiftly moving the ball down the field.

Then Van Siclen found herself with the ball in front of the Cougars’ net and sent the ball to the back of it — and everyone home.

MHS captain Sam Van Siclen slips the winning goal past MKA keeper GiGi Jacobson to end overtime and give the Mounties the 2-1 victory.
MHS captain Sam Van Siclen slips the winning goal past MKA keeper GiGi Jacobson to end overtime and give the Mounties the 2-1 victory.

“Sam’s a fighter,” Mercuro said. “She’s a senior and this is her year. She’s going to do great things [in it].”

“They played hard so I can’t be mad,” a frustrated Nappi said. “[But] when you have high expectations for them and you know how good they are because you see them in practice ... and then this happens.”

“I think that we were all getting really angry and we were getting frustrated but we knew we couldn’t let our frustration get to our heads,” Van Siclen said. “One thing our team has, is they have a lot of heart and we want to win for each other, not just for ourselves. So we kept that in mind throughout the whole game.

“It’s a team game,” Naturale said. “That’s why we really thrive in working together as a team, finishing as a team, playing defense as a team. We all just do it together and that’s how [wins are] going to come this season.”

Van Siclen praised the defense as well, and said with Naturale behind her, she knew the defensive line would keep them in the game while the offense worked through their issues.

For Mercuro, this was an important victory, coming on the heels of a recent tie against Randolph.

“MKA is a good team. This overtime win is real nice. We went to OT with Randolph in the rain and we couldn’t score. This time, I think once we got to overtime, these girls were like ‘this is our game, we’re not tying.’ And they really stepped up. They played with their hearts and it showed.”

For Nappi, as much as she was unhappy with the outcome, she could see an opportunity for her team to build up from a tough loss.

“That’s OK because we’ll grow from it and get better by the next time we see them.”

That could be a while, but until then the challenges don’t get easier, as the Mounties faced Glen Ridge Wednesday night and the Cougars take on Livingston.