WETHERSFIELD — New Canaan’s attempt at a third consecutive state field hockey title fell just one goal short, as the Hand Tigers edged the Rams, 2-1, in the Class M final this afternoon at Cottone Field.
“It’s awesome,” Hand coach Sue Leckey said. “It’s just so special for a great group of girls to be rewarded for all their hard work. It’s such a great sport and sometimes when two teams come together it can be anyone’s game, so when you come out on top it’s absolutely tremendous.”
New Canaan had a surprising run in the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a 9-7 record. The No. 8 Rams, who were without senior co-captain Elizabeth McCarthy throughout states, knocked off top-ranked Pomperaug in the quarterfinals and upset No. 4 Branford in the semis, both by scores of 2-1, before taking on No. 2 Hand in the title game.
Meanwhile the Tigers regained the Class M crown they had last won in 2014, the year before New Canaan started its back-to-back streak.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” first-year New Canaan coach Kelly Marks said. “The things that they’ve overcome and how they’ve come back. Unfortunately the score was not what we wanted, but I’m very happy with the way they played.”
Hand dominated New Canaan throughout the contest, controlling possession and attacking New Canaan’s transition game. Hand peppered Rams goalie Emily Gaeta with 11 shots while allowing just four shots on senior goalie Kylie Gargiulo.
The Tigers took an early lead as sophomore Jacqueline Sandor scored on a breakaway with 5:33 left in the half. New Canaan had a scoring chance two minutes later with a flurry in front of the Hand goal that led to two consecutive penalty corners. New Canaan came away empty-handed, as a shot went wide on the first corner and senior Sophie Schreck blocked a New Canaan shot on the second.
Hand continued to pressure New Canaan after the intermission, earning five penalty corners in the first five minutes of the second half. Despite a near-heroic effort by Gaeta, the Tigers eventually broke through as junior Kathryn Donahey put home a rebound for a 2-0 lead with 23:18 left in the game.
The Rams answered almost immediately as New Canaan’s Brielle Connelly found Meghan Mitchell off a penalty corner at the top of the circle. The junior rocketed the ball past Gargiulo, and suddenly the Rams seemed to have the momentum, trailing, 2-1, with 22:04 to play.
The Tigers, however, would bend but not break. Despite allowing five New Canaan penalty corners over the last 20 minutes, Hand’s defense stifled the Rams time and time again, not allowing a clean shot on goal for the rest of the game.
“We never get down on ourselves,” Schreck said. “We got a little frustrated at first but we went back to the fundamentals. We put pressure on them and kept the intensity up and that’s what helped us get out of it.”
Despite the loss, the future is very bright for a young New Canaan team that exceeded expectations.
“I’m a new coach with a new system,” Marks said. “I taught them something completely new this season and what they’ve done just from September to November was phenomenal. Take what we’ve learned this year and just wait for next year. We apply every mistake that we made and we learn from it, now we move on and keep pushing forward.”