GUILFORD — Heading into the Southern Connecticut Conference championship game against Branford on Saturday at Guilford High, Hand’s Sophie Schreck expected a close, hard-fought defensive struggle.
“The last time we played in the regular season, we beat Branford 3-0,” Schreck said. “Branford is always tough competition for us. Since we beat them last time I expected a close game, I expected them to play aggressive and hard.”
Schreck was right on the money. After three 10-minute sudden death overtimes the teams entered the penalty stroke round locked in a scoreless tie. Schreck produced the clinching score on her penalty stroke, giving No. 3 seed Hand a 4-2 win in penalty strokes over top-seeded Branford.
It was the third SCC tournament championship for the Tigers (16-1-2).
Each team had five penalty stroke opportunities. With Hand leading 2-1 in penalty strokes, Hand goalie Kyle Gargiulo made a save on LanLe Crotty’s shot. Hand’s Taylor Leckey and Branford’s Autumn McHenry traded goals with Hand leading 3-2. Players from each team missed their next opportunities, setting up Schreck’s game-winning shot.
“I aimed for the upper left corner and as soon as I hit the ball I knew it was going in,” Schreck said. “I was so happy, winning this title is such a great feeling. None of us really felt pressure. We were all composed and focused when it went to penalty strokes.
“This win gives us a lot of confidence going into the (CIAC Class M) state tournament.”
Gargiulo admitted going into the penalty strokes she was a bit nervous.
“Going to penalty strokes you’re always very nervous,” Gargiulo said. “But I knew my team would support me, I knew they would score. Even when we led 3-2 there was still pressure, but I just had to keep my mind set and stay focused.
“To win this championship means everything. It’s such a great feeling.”
Defense ruled in the scoreless first half with both goalies playing aggressive, coming out of the net and attacking the ball.
Hand’s Taylor Leckey had one of the best chances to score off a penalty corner with 2:20 to go. Leckey had a wide-open shot from about 10 yards out, wound up and sent a hard shot toward the left corner. But Branford goalie Erica Klarman took a step forward and kicked the ball away for the save.
Branford’s best chance came with 17:10 to go in the half. Brianna Shaw took a shot from about 5 yards out but Gargiulo made a kick save to keep the game scoreless.
In the second half and three overtimes each team had a chance to score but couldn’t finish. Hand had six penalty corners in the second half and three in the three overtimes. Branford (15-3-0-1) had three penalty corners in the second half and four in overtime.
“To play a team that beat us 3-0 this close and this tough says a lot about our kids,” Branford coach Cathy McGuirk said. ”To keep this game this close against Hand it had to be every kid on our team playing offense and defense. We had so many opportunities but they were stopping so many balls.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my kids and the way they played.”.
Gargiulo ended up with five saves. Klarman had four.