Overtime goal dooms Tigers, ends season

COCOLAMUS – When East Juniata forced an overtime period against Mifflinburg in the District 4 Class AA field hockey playoffs Thursday, it seemed like the Tigers were on the road to a first-round win against the Heartland Athletic Conference’s No. 2 team.

When the Tigers drew four penalty corners in a span of three minutes to start the seven-on-seven, sudden victory period, it looked like Mifflinburg was going to go home.

Enter Nicole Mironenko. The Wildcats’ goalie turned away a brutal attack in those first few minutes, then got to watch from the other end of the field as one of her teammates found a miracle in the circle. Cassandra Lewis got the last touch on a ball that three different Mifflinburg players tried to put in the cage, and East Juniata’s season was done.

The goal crossed the line with 16 ticks left on the clock, a 2-1 victory for the Wildcats.

“It looked like it was in and then it wasn’t. Hearing that bang is one of the best sounds in the world,” said Mifflinburg coach Jayme Longacre, who admitted she had trouble catching her breath during the overtime.

The 15-minute overtime should have gone the other way, at least by the lopsided difference in play. The Tigers played a controlled – and controlling – game, deliberately attacking the ball and dominating possession.

“That’s the key to overtime, is possession,” East Juniata coach Billie Haines said. “When we did get the ball we sent it up the field slowly as a team rather than hitting it up the field and chasing it. We told them to move it together.

“We possessed well. We possessed the ball and had lots of opportunities.”

Opportunity had been East Juniata’s mantra since the early minutes of regulation. Mifflinburg – which plays a grueling schedule in regulation and has made multiple trips into the state bracket, winning the Class AA state title in Longacre’s playing days – was confident and quick to the ball, but the Tigers were able to get in front of plays often.

“We came to play today,” Haines said. “We moved to the ball. They played well together. They were confident – they wanted to win.”

The stick skills East Juniata displayed – especially by Stephanie Dressler, who drove the ball through traffic with the skill of a race driver, often keeping the Wildcats off guard – were not enough when that traffic was as heavy as a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour. And that, sometimes, was because the Tigers were allowing themselves to be forced into a small field.

“That’s the same thing we tell the girls every game – go wide, play wide. It’s just a matter of them actually doing it,” Haines said.

And when they listened, the game suddenly became theirs to win or lose.

“We took it down the side of the field and crossed it over quite a few times,” Haines said. “We had lots of opportunities from it.”

Opportunities? Yes. Goals? Well, Mifflinburg was first to register in that department.

In the second minute of the second half, the Wildcats’ Paige Ruhl was on the spot when a hard cross went off the pads of Lydia Strawser, and Ruhl converted the second chance from the far post side.

It took 20 minutes until East Juniata had another really good chance, and it took a few to get the ball past Mironenko. She held off a scrum in the circle then avoided goals on three corners in less than a minute.

But with a perfectly played far-side cross at the 7:00 mark, Lydia Koser sent the ball to Serina Spancake, who made it a tie game.

In the end, though, the Tigers were the ones who faced the October surprise.

East Juniata’s season – the first as a cooperative with Juniata – closes with a 13-5-1 record. The Tigers were second in the Tri-Valley League after tying in the regular season and forcing a playoff with Greenwood.