The Sacred Heart Academy field hockey team is a prime example of why you play the games in the CIAC postseason state tournaments.
Reporters can make all the predictions in the world, tell you who the favorites are, who the challengers to those favorites are and even name a sleeper or two. But then a Sacred Heart Academy emerges.
Sacred Heart Academy entered the CIAC Class M tournament with a very respectable 9-7-1 record after losing to Guilford for a second time this season, a 4-0 loss in the Southern Connecticut Conference quarterfinals. Outside the field hockey world of the Sharks, a deep run in Class M was not predicted.
After Sacred Heart Academy defeated Wethersfield 3-0 in the first round of the Class M tournament, the Sharks served notice that something special was going to happen when they defeated No. 1 seed Suffield 1-0 in the quarterfinals. The Sharks went on to defeat one of the top teams in northern Connecticut with a 1-0 victory over No. 4 Avon in the semifinals to book their first state final appearance.
On Sunday, as fate would have it, thanks to a team effort front to back according to coach Jackie DeFrancesco in the Class M tournament, No. 8 Sacred Heart Academy will face No. 3 Guilford for a third time this season in the championship game at 4:30 p.m. at Wethersfield High.
“As a head coach, you always strive for a state title,” DeFrancesco said. “Accomplishing that is another story. At the start of the season, we knew that we wanted to compete in the extremely tough SCC Conference with the top teams.
“Being a head coach in my fifth season, I am always trying to learn and get better. With a lot of the coaches we face having been around for a long time, I have tried to glean from their success. So our coaching staff made a decision to change our formation. This made for a rough start, but the girls kept working hard at it, and things began to click. We started to win games and build confidence.”
Solid defense has been a key factor for the Sharks’ success, but DeFrancesco said there is more to their success.
“Our defense has played amazing, but honestly, our team’s greatest strength has been teamwork,” DeFrancesco said. “These girls have become a family. They believe in each other, they pick each other up, and they relentlessly give 110 percent for one another.”
Among the offensive standouts for the Sharks are midfielder Taylor Dostie, named All-SCC and All-State, and Francesca Criscuolo. The defense has been led by Grace Plunkett, Sofia Verna, Sam Lee and Hannah Guth. The Sharks have also received solid goalie play from Kyleen Crowe (10 shutouts including three in the M tournament).
“It’s tough to single out players,” DeFrancesco said. “We teach all the girls to play together, and every single one of them have contributed in the success that we have experienced this year. We have 13 seniors, two starting juniors and two starting sophomores, a deep bench that has stepped up every time we called on them, and that is why we are playing for a state title.”
Guilford coach Kitty Palmer is not surprised by the Sharks’ success.
“Sacred Heart Academy has been a solid SCC team,” Palmer said. “Each game we have had with them has been hard fought. I expect nothing different on Saturday.”
The Indians, who defeated Cheshire 3-1 in the SCC tournament championship game, will try to win their third state title (L co-champs with Simsbury in 1997, L co-champs with Cheshire in 1991). They are led on offense by Celia Mariconda (19 goals, nine assists), Hannah Tillier (13 goals, 10 assists), Ella Stanley (15 goals, five assists) and defender Emily Torre has contributed on offense with eight goals and eight eight assists.
Palmer credits the ability to get a lot of shots off in the SCC playoffs and in Class M for the Indians’ success.
“We have run up against good goalies, so our conversion rate is not as good as we would like, but I like the amount of looks we are getting,” Palmer said. “We also have had a lot of offensive corners, which we have to convert on more. Sacred Heart Academy has a very good goalie, and we need to continue to get our chances against her in order to be successful.
“I continue to like our athleticism and speed. Freshman Maddie Epke has emerged as a very important player for us in the SCC and state playoffs. She has gained confidence daily, and with Janie Danaher and Jamie Neleber, provide a very strong midfield for us. Our goalie Eve Young has been rock steady, and with defenders, Mariah Cretella, Emily Torre and Kelsi Putnam, they have performed well all year.”
DeFrancesco expects a tough game.
“Guilford is an incredibl team, they are coached by Kitty Palmer, a field hockey icon, and their team is well prepared, fast, and will be ready to play,” DeFrancesco said. “Having played them a couple times this year does give us the benefit of preparing. But we have to continue to work together as a team, play hard and believe we can get a different result than what we had earlier this year.”
The SCC is well-represented in the tournament finals. Also competing for a title will be No. 1 Cheshire, which faces two-time Class L champion Staples in the Class L final at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday.
The Rams are led by their 1-2 scoring punch of Annie Eddy and Mikayla Crowley and goalie Lexie Hemstock. The Wreckers are led on offense by Ellie Fair and Kyle Kirby and on defense by defenders Grace Cooper and Hannah Paprotna.