Liberty goalkeeper Grace Fenner talks after the Lions' 2-1 win in the 2A state semifinals on Nov. 7.
Liberty field hockey did not play Glenelg during the regular season, yet ahead of the 2A state semifinals on Wednesday night, the Lions felt the need to prove themselves against the defending state champion Gladiators.
That’s because in a 25-minute preseason scrimmage between the two teams, Glenelg scored six goals to Liberty’s zero. Coach Brenda Strohmer said her Lions got “demolished.”
For context, Liberty was missing senior midfielder Heidi Ellis, who entered Wednesday’s contest with seven goals and 10 assists. The program also welcomed a host of new varsity players this year and was in the process of implementing a new formation.
Still, the players took the blowout loss seriously and were determined to put forth a better showing in a game that counted — a lot. In just its second year in Class 2A, Liberty was two wins away from a state championship.
Glenelg would go to produce 16 shots on target Wednesday night compared to six for the Lions, hold a 11-4 advantage on corners and force goalkeeper Grace Fenner to make 15 saves. Yet when the final whistle sounded, Glenelg walked off the field dejectedly while Liberty celebrated near its own cage. Behind two first-half goals and a stellar defensive stand in the second half, the Lions were victorious, 2-1, and now are one victory from their second state title in three seasons.
“The girls have worked so hard since they won the region to come back and win this game,” Strohmer said. “We worked on long drives and shots and corners and teamwork and communication just so hard and so focused to get ready for this game.”
After missing the scrimmage, Ellis immediately made her presence known against Glenelg, the reigning three-time 2A South region champion. On the game’s first corner, Ellis received a short pass from junior attacker Riley Pardoe, took one touch to bait the defender and quickly passed back to Pardoe for the open shot. Before a second Gladiators’ defender could get to her, Pardoe launched a low drive that caught the stick of sophomore Kayleigh Ward before piercing the net.
Strohmer talked to her team about starting fast, and less than three minutes into the game, Liberty (16-2) had the lead.
While the Lions produced just a few scoring chances from there, their lack of offense proved insignificant because of their high conversion rate. On their fourth and final corner of the night, with 4 minutes, 36 seconds before halftime, Ellis scored the only other goal they needed to advance to Saturday’s state final. The Lions will play Hereford, which beat Kent Island, 4-1, in the other semifinal, at 6:30 p.m. at Washington College.
“We all really, really wanted to win this, and we wanted to advance,” Fenner said. “Just all of us working together and the teamwork that we brought, I think it really led us to win this one.”
As for Glenelg (12-2-1), coach Nicole Trunzo believes nerves overcame her team early in the first half, which resulted in crucial errors that allowed Liberty to jump ahead and remain in the lead.
However, Strohmer knew her opponent would eventually find its rhythm. Everyone she talked to said the Gladiators were a second-half team, so she wasn’t surprised when they scored right before intermission — on a redirect from senior forward Tess Munesses — and continued to dominate after the break.
The ball remained mostly in Liberty’s defensive third from the opening second-half whistle to the final one, and with that possession Glenelg sent a barrage of shots on target. By the time the Lions took their first attempt, which went wide with 12 minutes to play, the Gladiators had already racked up four corners and four shots on cage.
“They’re a strong team, and they were on fire,” Strohmer said. “Kind of like we were on the fire the first half, they were on fire the second half. They crushed us. They had us back on our heels, we just didn’t let them score.”
Trunzo commended her players’ effort for regrouping and displaying the offensive firepower they’ve shown all season. However, the Gladiators’ attempts kept finding Fenner or a Liberty defender. Others went wide of the cage. None crossed the goal line.
So, despite dominating in almost all of the statistical categories, the Gladiators went home two wins shy of their ultimate goal.
“They’re a really great team,” Trunzo said of her group. “They play in a very tough top tier, all those big 4A schools, and they dominate. They should be proud of themselves. I am proud of them. Just unfortunately, this was a game that was one and done, but I mean such a great season.”