Shenendehowa had a two-goal lead and was nearing the finish line when Saratoga Springs suddenly found its offensive rhythm in Thursday’s Section II Class A semifinal field hockey game at Steuerwald Stadium.
“It was scary,” said Shenendehowa goaltender Melissa Nealon. “You don’t think, you just react.”
Nealon made all five of her saves in a frantic flurry as the final minutes ticked away to preserve a lead built on goals by Anna Bottino and Anna Branch earlier in the second half.
With the 2-0 victory, the Lady Plainsmen earned another crack at Niskayuna, the team they lost to in last year’s large-school title game in overtime. Niskayuna (No. 1 seed, 15-2) is also the only team to beat Shenendehowa (No. 2 seed, 16-2) this season.
“Sunday is going to be a fight. We want it more than anything,” Bottino said of the 4 p.m. final at Schuylerville. “We still have a bitter taste from last year.”
Shenendehowa got the rematch by dominating all but the last five minutes of the second half, when Saratoga took the Lady Plainsmen out of their comfort zone.
Saratoga (No. 3 seed, 12-6) came on after Branch had given Shenendehowa a 2-0 lead with 6:44 left. The Blue Streaks accumulated five penalty corners after the goal and unleased five shots, only to be denied by Nealon each time.
“We needed to start sooner,” Saratoga coach Jo-Anna Hostig said after her team’s fourth semifinal setback in as many years, the last three coming against Shenendehowa. “We started a little bit toward the end of the first half, and settled back again and waited.
“We didn’t have enough opportunities. That’s been our thing all year. That’s been our dilemma.”
Saratoga’s only quality scoring bid before that came in the first half, when Shenendehowa’s Molly Hagen rushed out of the cage on a penalty corner and stuffed a shot just inside the top of the circle.
“When we were having our corners, I worked on my footwork to stay warm,” said Nealon.
Kendall Pelletier made the last big play for Shenendehowa soon after Saratoga’s final corner, when she denied Blue Streaks’ standout Kelsey Briddell on a breakaway bid.
“Kendall made a great stop and cleared it. If she doesn’t make the play, Kelsey has a good chance to score,” said Shenendehowa coach Jeanne Frevola. “That was huge. That stopped their momentum.”
Shenendehowa had all the momentum earlier in the half when its aggressive offensive play resulted in nine corners. On the fifth, with 19:14 left, Bottino notched her goal.
“Our whole key this year is shoot the ball,” said Frevola. “We kept throwing it at the feet. We were causing third party and hacking on their part.”
Hagan drilled the ball just wide of the cage shortly before Bottino’s backhand goal from close range. Soon after the goal, Erin Buckley fired another shot wide.
“In the second half it was like, come on, we have the run of the game,” said Bottino, a senior midfielder. “It came down to us cutting more, talking more, and we finished.”
Bottino made an inset pass to Erin Buckley up top, and Buckley made a quick slide to Hagen to begin Shenendehowa’s first scoring play. Hagen drove the ball toward the cage and Nicole daCunha fed Bottino with a backhand pass.
“I didn’t want to take the time to turn around so I backhanded it and hoped it would go in,” said Bottino.
Shenendehowa caught a break later in the half when Saratoga netminder Sam Geils (10 saves) kicked at a soft scoring bid by Casey Stata. Geils didn’t get the ball flush, and it rolled sideways where Branch had set up, and Branch found an open cage.
“In these games, a two-goal lead is big,” said Nealon, a junior. “At that point you know you can hold them.”
Hagen played a significant role denying Saratoga thrusts and carrying the ball, while Rachel Picci and Emily Frazier were active on the front line filling in for Caroline Cady. Cady, a team leader and one of the goal scorers in a 6-1 quarterfinal win over Columbia, missed the game while recovering from a concussion.
“They were hungry, and it showed,” said Hostig. “We needed to generate offense. When you don’t create it, you’re done.”
Carrie Hanks, Ali Wells and Ali Frary scored first-half goals, and Niskayuna reached its fifth consecutive championship game with a 3-0 win over Guilderland.
Hanks had an assist, and Emily King made three saves for the shutout. Emma Schumacher made 10 saves for Guilderland (No. 5 seed, 6-12).
“It was good game, considering we hadn’t played in a week in a half,” said Niskayuna coach Alison Broomhead, whose Silver Warriors received a quarterfinal bye.
A day after wrapping up its third straight Suburban Council title with a 2-1 win over Shenendehowa, Niskayuna dropped a 3-2 decision to Kingston.
“Kingston is a strong, physical team. We didn’t muster enough to win it,” said Broomhead. “My girls did like how that felt, and I’ll remind them of that before we play Shenendehowa.”
Niskayuna lost overtime championship games to Shenendehowa in 2011 and 2010 and beat Saratoga for the title the year before that.
“When you play Shenendehowa, you have to show up,” said Broomhead. “Our sticks have to be crisp. Our defense has to be supportive. Our offense has to shoot hard and quick and be ready for rebounds.”