MADISON – Having posted 12 shutouts and allowed just six goals all season heading into Tuesday evening’s postseason contest, the Hand Tigers had to like the position they were in.
When freshman Kayla Howard scored late in the first half against West Haven, the Tigers were in a prime position. Scoring five times in the second half, top-seeded Hand defeated fifth-seeded West Haven 6-0 in a Southern Connecticut Conference semifinal contest at the Surf Club in Madison Tuesday evening.
With their tenth win in a row, including a fourth straight shutout, the Tigers advance to the SCC finals Thursday evening against second-seeded Cheshire, a 2-1 overtime winner over Amity, at Ken Strong Stadium in West Haven at 5:30 p.m.
“We have defended well,” Hand coach David Dikranian said after his team improved to 14-1-3. “We have a great keeper (Lily Geshwind). As a group, we try to have everyone go up the field as a group and come back as a team.”
Howard was the center piece of the first two Hand goals as she scored in the first half and made a beautiful move in the second half to set up a goal by Vivianna Mazzarella.
The Tigers controlled play in the opening half in terms of possession and shots. Hand had six quality shots on goal, but needed until 10:02 remained in the opening half to capitalize.
Off their third corner kick of the opening half, the Tigers capitalized when Mazzarella’s corner bounced in front of West Haven goalkeeper Alycia Morales.
Howard was in the right spot and buried a shot in the back of the net for the only goal the Tigers would need.
“We have a strong defense and offense,” Howard said of her team. “We come out strong every game.”
The Tigers had another golden opportunity to extend the lead off another corner kick with 3:15 left in the first half. Morales, who made five saves in the opening half, came up big with a diving stop off a shot by Riley Kokoruda in front.
Hand continued the pressure in the second half and increased the margin to a pair of goals just 7:58 in. Howard made a sensational move, pulling the ball back and tapping a pass to Mazzarella. With a clear shot in front, Mazzarella blasted a shot past Morales for a 2-0 advantage.
“I thought that was the key for us,” Dikranian said of the two-goal lead. “We wanted to get that second goal to open the game up. Give Pete (Trenchard) credit. He is a smart coach. He defended well and did not make it easy for us to get going. Once we got that second goal, we knew they would have to open up the game.”
The Tigers put the game away with two goals in a span of 1:03 late in the second half.
Sophomore Sophia Dickman blasted a shot by Morales with 15:33 to go and Mazzarella followed suit with a blast from 30 yards out with 14:30 to go.
The Tigers’ defense was exceptional in the contest, not allowing a quality scoring attempt by West Haven seniors Lauren Lewis and Gabi Prisco.
“We did not show up to play,” West Haven coach Pete Trenchard said after his team saw its four-game winning streak snapped and fell to 10-4-4. “They were more aggressive. They wanted it more. They are a good team.
“They are a very high pressure team. As soon as we had the ball, they were all over us. One of our strengths is possession and working the ball around. They did not give us the chance to do that.”
The Tigers capped the scoring with two goals in the final 5:15 as Delaney Skelly and Helena Stein both scored.
After shots by Hand’s Ashleigh Violette and Kokoruda sailed wide in the opening eight minutes of the contest, Taylor Scully’s shot from 17 yards out with 8:50 gone by in the game was turned aside by Morales. Gabriella Egidio was then denied in front by Morales 13 minutes in.
The Westies immediately tried to lead Lewis in on a break one minute later, but the senior could not catch up.