As strong and deeply talented as the field hockey competition has been over the years in the Southern Connecticut Conference, the SCC tournament has been dominated by four teams — Cheshire, Hand, Guilford and Lauralton Hall.
Hand has been in 5 of 6 finals and won twice, Cheshire has been in 3 of 6 finals and won three times and since Lauralton Hall came into the league in 2014 it has been in two finals and won last season (2-1 over Hand). Guilford has been in two finals with two runner-up finishes.
While SCC coaches agree the aforementioned teams are top contenders, when the seventh edition of the SCC tournament kicks off with quarterfinals on Saturday, the wild card is Branford. The Hornets, like the Rams and Tigers, have been in all six SCC semifinals. But the Hornets have never advanced to the final.
In the 2016 regular season, the Hornets have beaten all four teams that have been previous SCC tournament finalists. They beat Cheshire 1-0 on Sept. 13, defeated Hand 2-1 on Sept. 17, defeated Lauralton Hall twice (2-1 in OT on Sept. 9 and 4-0 on Oct. 8) and defeated Guilford 1-0 on Thursday. The caveat here is when facing Cheshire and Hand a second time this season the Hornets lost 2-0 both times.
“The tournament is certainly wide open among all the teams you have mentioned,” Branford coach Cathy McGuirk said. “To win we obviously need to get to the finals and that’s one of our goals. We have been improving in many ways and we need to continue to do that and play hard, strong and together. But like all sports luck always enters into the mix. Our players like playing in the tournament and it’s fun. But we treat it as any other big game.”
McGuirk said the Hornets’ strength this season is their experience with veteran players.
“We’ve been getting great goaltending, our offense and defense is balanced and we are getting major contributions from several freshmen,” McGuirk said.
Among the top players for the Hornets are forwards Kiersten Bjork and LanLe Crotty, goalie Keira Integlia, midfielders Carol Frye and Autumn McHenry and defenders Sabrina Torcellini and Alanna Grimm.
The Indians have come close to SCC titles with runner-up finishes in 2010 (3-0 loss to Hand) and 2011 (2-1 OT loss to Cheshire). While Guilford coach Kitty Palmer agrees the SCC tournament is wide open, she believes Cheshire is a team to watch with the SCC’s best league record at 9-0-1.
Palmer said Guilford’s forte is its effort play after play. Key players are forward and top scorer Olivia Clarke, midfielders Teddi Stanley and Julia Ellman, and defenders Mallory Peters, Kendra Luden and goalie Cami Makula.
“We have strengths in all areas, and keeping up our team speed and endurance all game long is the key to our success,” Palmer said.
Hand coach Sue Leckey believes any of the top teams could win the SCC title.
“Our Hand team is a longer shot than the other four judging from how the season is going so far,” Leckey said. “Don’t count us out, but the others have proven their championship potential throughout the season. Cheshire is probably the favorite but I honestly think it could easily be Branford or Guilford. If Lauralton Hall can keep other teams from scoring on them, they have a chance to beat any of those three as well.”
Leckey believes all the top SCC teams have exceptional players.
“Cheshire’s goalie (Alyssa Stevens) is terrific and they also have a cast of many other key players that can be dominant on a given night,” Leckey said. “Olivia Clarke from Guilford is the most dynamic field player in the league judging by the games we were involved in. Guilford has a solid team of players and a lot of senior maturity.
“Branford’s goalie is unbelievable as well and will empower the Hornets to keep any team within their grasp. Her saves against Guilford were critical to their 1-0 OT win. Lauralton has lots of experience on the field and is coached to play hard, aggressive field hockey, which can always lead to a championship or two. As usual it will be a hard-fought tournament.”
Among the top players for Hand are Erickson Richard (10 goals), Leckey’s daughter Taylor Leckey (six goals, eight assists) and Hollis Wivell (six goals, five assists).
In addition to Stevens, among the top players for Cheshire are defenders Julia Schaff, Mia Pulisciano and Annie Eddy and forwards Mikayla Crowley (10 goals, eight assists) and Sam Simione (nine goals, six assists).
“From the beginning, I thought Branford was the team to beat this season,” Cheshire coach Eileen Wildermann said. “Last season, I thought they were the most improved SCC team. Right now, though, I see Hand the same way.
“They have improved so much this year. They got off to a slower start, but have come roaring down the end of the season. It’s a testament to good coaching and committed girls. Guilford and Lauralton are strong too. The traditionally strong teams have continued to prove themselves.”
Lauralton Hall is led by top scorers Nikki Zaccaro (11 goals, one assist), Madelyn Monohan (four goals, seven assists) and Kiley Forest (five goals, five assists).
Another team that Palmer and Leckey believe could challenge for the SCC title is Hamden with its balanced scoring led by Dina Alissi (four goals, 16 assists), Taylor Klesyk (nine goals, five assists), Hailey Collins (eight goals, six assists) and Ellie Craft (nine goals).
The Shoreline Conference field hockey tournament begins with semifinals on Tuesday at the Indian River Complex in Clinton. No. 2 seed Westbrook faces No. 3 seed North Branford at 5 p.m. and No. 1 seed Haddam-Killingworth faces No. 4 seed Valley Regional at 7 p.m. The winners meet in the championship game at the same site on Nov. 3 at 7 p.m.