Wallingford >> It took the Branford field hockey team seven years to get to the Southern Connecticut Conference tournament championship game.
The wait was worth it.
Midfielder Autumn McHenry, named the tournament most outstanding player, led a tough defense and Kiersten Bjork scored the game-winning goal with 14 minutes, 25 seconds left in the second half to lead No. 3 Branford to a 2-1 win over No. 1 Cheshire in the seventh annual SCC championship game at Lyman Hall on Thursday.
The Hornets (17-2) have advanced to the SCC tournament semifinals all seven years the tournament has been in existence but never advanced to the final until this season.
“My head is almost exploding with excitement,” said Cathy McGuirk, who is in her 40th season as the Hornets’ coach. “Every year coaching this sport it gets more exciting and it’s always fun. I’m having a lot of fun right now.
“Both goalies in this game were great and made some big saves. But our defense was in such a good rhythm that even our forwards were contributing on defense. We knew against a tough team like Cheshire in a game of this magnitude that we had to step up our game and play more aggressive. The girls listened to the coaches and really stepped up their game.”
During a penalty corner opportunity that led to the game-winning goal, Bjork found herself in the middle of a scramble for the ball in front of the right post.
“A lot of players were on the ball at the same time in that scramble,” Bjork said. “The ball was bouncing around off players like it was a pinball machine. It came off the goalie twice and as soon as I saw it that second time I went after it.
“When I hit it I knew it was going in the net with the way it was bouncing. To be here for the first time and winning this championship is so exciting. This is really great for our program because we have a lot of young players and this will build confidence for them.”
In the first half, Branford dominated play the first 17 minutes and would take the first lead. On the first penalty corner of the game, Carol Frye took the restart and passed to Sabrina Torcellini at the top of the circle. Torcellini sent a hard shot toward the right post and Molly Zaffino redirected the ball into the net to give the Hornets a 1-0 lead with 27:24 to go in the first half.
Early in the game, the Rams (14-1-3-1) couldn’t get inside the 30 yard line thanks to an aggressive Hornets’ defense. But the Rams used some long passes to move the ball deeper in the Branford zone and eventually tied the game. Samantha Simione scored off a penalty corner with 12:09 to go in the first half to tie the game at 1.
Both teams had opportunities to score in the second half but the wild scramble for the ball would provide the only goal of the half.
“Branford took us out of our game early,” Cheshire coach Eileen Wildermann said. “They denied us until we figured them out and started getting some offensive opportunities. Last year when Branford lost in the semifinals I said they were the most improved team in the league. I knew they would be formidable this season.”
Branford goalie Keira Integlia made five saves and Cheshire goalie Alyssa Stevens had three.