STATE COLLEGE - Penalty corners mean scoring opportunities, so it's no surprise that Mifflin County's first tally came off one of those, with just two minutes left to play in the first half of Wednesday's District 6 Class AAA field hockey championship game.
The next goal? That was the unlikely one, but the one that meant the most. With three minutes left in the contest, Mifflin County's Anne Harshbarger stroked a ball from the top of the circle. It deflected off the foot of State College goalie Megan McCarthy, but not far enough - and it gave the Huskies the insurance they needed to win the district title, 2-0.
"Obviously the second goal was a big relief," Mifflin County coach Tish Maclay said. "We knew one goal wasn't going to be enough, that they were going to be knocking on the door. They don't let up."
Sentinel photo by STEVE?MANUEL
Mifflin County’s Anne Harshbarger, center, takes a shot to score the Huskies’ second goal as Sara Neff (26) looks on during Mifflin County’s 2-0 win over State College for the District 6 Class AAA field hockey championship Wednesday in State College.
Mifflin County (8-10-1) will take on the District 7 (WPIAL) champion in a state play-in game Oct. 31 at North Allegheny High School. That team will be decided Tuesday.
The Huskies' formula for success was simple: Control the ball.
Except for brief offensive forays at the beginning and end of the first half, most of the period was spent with State College on defense. The Little Lions were stretched by Mifflin County's successful field-changing technique, and apparently were unable to keep up with another strategy Mifflin County used, one that Maclay credited to her former players that march the sideline with her today, Chelsea Zook and Courtney Kanagy.
"We used three different formations. I really want to thank my assistant coaches (for coming up with that scheme)," Maclay said. "It was a lot of their idea, too, to switch up formations and really come up with the strategy we wanted to use."
It still required implementation, and the girls playing the game did their part.
"I think the girls really stepped up. They played a nice game today," Maclay said.
The Huskies pursued the ball relentlessly, stepping in front of State College passes and forcing turnovers. On their first trip up field, the Huskies drew three corners in a 90-second span, although managed only one solid shot, which McCarthy booted away.
In the final 10 minutes of the first, Mifflin County missed a great opportunity to get on the board when McCarthy turned away consecutive attempts by Marissa Byler and Sara Neff. But in the Huskies' final corner of the half - in fact, their last of the game - Katelyn Cramer got a second-chance ball behind McCarthy and found the opening.
The tables didn't exactly turn in the second half, but defense became more important for Mifflin County. The Huskies had that down, too.
Ten minutes into the half, State's Emily Allegar went one-on-one with Huskies' goalie Jordan Myers, whose stop on that goal exemplified the stand-on-her-head performance she exhibited in the game. That was one of two efforts by the Little Lions that left Myers on the ground; this time, Allegar was still on position to shoot on an open goal.
Not so fast, said Mifflin County's Nikita Edmiston, as she stepped in for a defensive save that preserved the one-goal advantage.
"Our links and our backs all came up with big plays throughout the whole game. I think they made some spectacular saves to keep the score what it was," Maclay said. "I think all our backs, really - Renee Grill, Maddie Rutherford, Nikita Edmiston - they all came up with really big plays. Renee really stepped it up toward the end of the game to control the ball and keep it up in our offensive portion of the field."
That's true, too - Grill was like glue on the ball in the waning minutes of a game that could quickly have turned in State College's favor. Her speed to the ball was notable in keeping the Little Lions off guard.
But it was Harshbarger who saved the best for last, dishing on what probably should have rolled across the end line.
"We have been telling the girls - we have been telling them all season - shoot in the circle instead of passing," Maclay said. "She took the shot and that's why you take the shot - you get an angle and it goes in."
Notes: Mifflin County's field hockey team, which was the first from the school to win a district title, now becomes the first to win more than one. ... Tish Maclay, who is in her 19th year of coaching, has won 10 district championships in her career.