For the first time in three years, the Pierson (Sag Harbor) High School field hockey team is returning to the state Final Four.
The Whalers, who are led by Kasey Gilbride, Long Island’s top scorer with 24 goals, and by her fellow senior, Katherine Matthers, who seems invariably to come up big in crunch time, are to play Whitney Point, a Binghamton-area team, in the first of Saturday’s semifinals, at 1:30 p.m. at Syracuse’s Cicero North High School. The other semifinal, at 3:30, will be contested by Cazenovia and Barker.
Cazenovia won the 2010 state final by defeating Pierson 1-0 in overtime.
Though it has gone upstate numerous times in the past, Pierson has never won a state championship in the sport, though it has been a runner-up thrice.
Shannon Judge, the Whalers’ coach, when asked following her charges’ exciting 3-2 win over Carle Place on Nov. 6 in the Long Island Class C championship game, to talk about the season, said “the turning point” had come with a 5-1 loss to Division III champion Miller Place on Oct. 8. Since then, the 14-4 Whalers have won nine straight, a streak during which they’ve outscored their opponents 31-7.
They’ve swept through the postseason thus far, shutting out Southampton 3-0 in the county Class C final, shocking Miller Place 1-0 to win the county’s small-schools championship — presumably the first time a Whaler team has ever done that — besting, as aforesaid, Carle Place, Nassau’s C champ, at Dowling’s Sports Complex on Nov. 6, and prevailing 1-0 in double overtime over Pawling in the Southeast Regional final in White Plains this past Saturday.
Arguably, this is the strongest team the Sag Harbor school has ever sent to a Final Four.
Certainly, Gilbride, Pierson’s unstoppable center midfielder, who orchestrates the great majority of its attacks, appears to be when on the pitch a woman among girls, camping out around the midfield stripe, looking for an opportunity to take the ball from an opponent. And when she does, she’s off to the races, invariably dribbling through flailing defenders into the circle, where she’s often fouled, resulting in a penalty corner play for her side.
If there’s one caveat when it comes to Pierson, it is its tendency to get off to slow starts.
It did this against Carle Place, and also, reportedly, against Pawling.
At Dowling, following a rather ho-hum 24 minutes, Gilbride, who’s going to go to the University of Richmond, swept in on the Frogs’ very agile goalie, Lydia Rice, and, from the right side, in close, whipped a shot by her into the left corner of the cage.
But Carle Place evened the count before the halftime break on a corner play that the Whalers did not defend particularly well.
Judge obviously lit a fire under her charges during the intermission, for they played much stronger in the second half, during which Rice, who finished with 23 saves, seemed to spend more time on her back than on her feet.
One adjustment Judge made, she said, was to break up the Gilbride-Matthers pair at the top of the circle on corner plays, “because their goalie was so good that we knew we couldn’t beat her with a direct hit.”
Matthers was moved off to the left, an adjustment that was to seal Carle Place’s fate with 4:15 left on the clock.
Each team had three corner plays in the first half. In the second, the revved-up Whalers had nine, testing Rice to the limit.
But this was no walkover. In fact, a goal — a rather flukey one that dribbled past Sam Duchemin — by the Frogs with 11:27 left put Pierson in a 2-1 hole.
Forty-eight seconds later, Gilbride evened it up, converting on a corner play, and in the succeeding 10 minutes, the Whalers were relentless, sending Rice to the turf time after time.
In the fifth corner play of that series, Matthers, in seemingly characteristic fashion — she won the Long Island game in 2010, as well, with the two goals scored against Friends Academy — “willed the ball in,” in Judge’s words.
That goal did the Frogs in. Pierson continued to attack in the remaining minutes.
On Saturday, in White Plains, Pierson reportedly got off to another slow start.
“It was a defensive battle,” said The Sag Harbor Express’s Gavin Menu. “Pierson played better in the second half, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say [as Newsday did] that they dominated . . . though we did have three goals called back — two in the second half and one in the first overtime.”
Gilbride was green-carded for having answered a punch with a shove during the first 7-on-7 O.T., and Pawling took advantage of her 2-minute sidelining to go on the attack. On one of those, Matthers came up big defensively, lunging to knock out of bounds a goal-bound shot that might have beaten Duchemin.
Gilbride returned to the field before the first 10-minute O.T. ended. In the second one, Ana Sherwood, a talented Pierson freshman forward, was green-carded, “though within 30 seconds of that, one of their girls was carded too,” said Menu, “so each team was down to five field players, leaving things wide open for Kasey. With five minutes to go, she pushed the ball up at least half the length of the field and, after being pushed to the right, back-handed a pass to Katherine, who hit it home.”
“There was a big celebration — at least 50 people from Sag Harbor came to see the game. . . . It’s not just Kasey. Pierson has a lot of good role players, especially its defenders Kirra McGowin, India Hemby, Katherine, and Rachael Miller, who was particularly outstanding. I don’t think Duchemin had to make a save the whole game.”