When North Carroll senior Val Aberts scored four minutes into yesterday's Class 2A West regional field hockey semifinal against visiting Middletown, the No. 4 Panthers had to like their chances.
The Panthers' defense took control the rest of the way, turning back Middletown rushes to maintain the lead and advance to the region final with a 1-0 victory in Hampstead.
The Panthers will play host to county rival Liberty tomorrow at 3:15 p.m. The fourth-seeded Lions advanced with a 4-1 victory over top-seeded Damascus yesterday.
Last Thursday, the Panthers won the Carroll County championship with a 1-0 overtime win against Liberty, their second 1-0 victory over the Lions this season.
How good has the North Carroll defense been?
In improving to 11-1-1 overall, the Panthers have 12 shutouts (including a scoreless tie with Francis Scott Key) and have given up two goals all season -- both coming in their 2-1 overtime loss to No. 7 Westminster.
"Outstanding job," said North Carroll coach Denean Koontz of her defense.
"The key has been teamwork," Koontz said. "They all support each other very well, and the midfield does a good job dropping behind them to help out."
Junior Amber Bosley sent a short pass through the crease to Aberts, who pushed a shot past Middletown goalie Elissa Pugh.
The goal stood up despite a solid effort from the Middletown offense.
The second-seeded Panthers finished with a 20-15 edge in shots over third-seeded Middletown, and both teams had plenty of chances to score.
Junior goalie Holly Saravalle had eight saves for North Carroll.
Other Middletown opportunities were turned back by a solid defense in front of her, led by Erin Deigert, Mary Ann Oldani, Jen Richards and Jill Ballard.
Middletown (7-5) put on the most pressure midway through the second half.
Jamie Snyder had a shot from just inside the circle with 18 minutes left that went just wide of Saravalle.
Two minutes later, there was a big scramble in front of the North Carroll cage. Snyder and Sara Axline had whacks at the loose ball but couldn't get anything by Saravalle.
Then Koontz called timeout.
"We needed to regroup. We were getting a little scattered, and I call timeout to settle things down," she said.
She said keeping the visiting Knights off the scoreboard during that stretch was the key.
"Having them not score was a big confidence booster and was definitely the key," she said. "This one could have gone either way. Both teams played very well, and we were fortunate to score early."