Penalty corner success helps Marriotts Ridge field hockey get past River Hill

Game-opening goals have been hard to come by for Marriotts Ridge field hockey during the first half of this season.

The Mustangs often surrender the first score before eventually finding their offensive and defensive rhythm as the contest progresses, coach Stacie Gado said. In fact, a lot of their better performances so far this year have come after intermission.

Thursday’s county showdown with River Hill was no different, as Marriotts Ridge scored twice in the final period while dominating in terms of possession, shots on target and penalty corners. However, ask Gado about the main difference in Marriotts Ridge’s 3-0 road victory, and she’ll point to the final minutes of the opening frame. That’s when Gracie Kennedy scored the team’s first goal off of its first corner, setting the tone in a shutout victory that keeps the Mustangs undefeated in league play.

“The confidence of scoring first, scoring on a corner, that definitely brought their intensity up to keep them rolling through the second half,” Gado said.

Gado admitted her group has struggled to convert penalty corners throughout what has been an up-and-down season against some of the best competition in Howard and Anne Arundel counties. For example, Marriotts Ridge (3-0 county, 5-4 overall) earned seven second-half penalty corners and came up empty in a 5-0 defeat to Severna Park on Monday. Before that, the Mustangs combined to score just three times in multi-goal losses to Chesapeake and Arundel.

But following those three losses, the Mustangs regained their confidence with a 2-0 win over Atholton on Tuesday and continued to build momentum with another shutout against a strong River Hill squad.

Thursday’s matchup went back and forth for the opening 25 minutes with neither team producing a penalty corner or a dangerous scoring opportunity. Then came the Mustangs’ first corner at the 5:09 mark that changed the complexion of the game.

The play began with Kennedy inserting the ball to junior forward Emma Gladstein at the edge of the circle on the left side, and with little hesitation, Gladstein rifled a shot towards the cage. By that point, Kennedy was stationed on the left post and able to redirect the ball through the legs of goalkeeper Caroline Kral (10 saves), off a River Hill defender and across the goal line to put Marriotts Ridge ahead, 1-0.

Coach Shelly Chamness said that for whatever reason, the opening goal deflected her players to the point where it affected their intensity for the rest of the contest. Marriotts Ridge was the team that crashed the cage when one of its players took a shot, while River Hill once again could not produce second-chance opportunities. In Tuesday’s win over Centennial, the Hawks launched 27 shots but scored just once.

The Hawks did not create nearly as many chances against the Mustangs’ backline of senior Michaela Hartigan and juniors Emma Miller and Megan Hettinger. But if one of their shot attempts did slip past the upperclassmen unit, goalkeeper Grace Tolle (six saves) was there to preserve the shutout.

“[Marriotts Ridge] scored a goal, and they just got deflated, and you can’t let one goal get you down,” Chamness said. “And they are definitely more intense than we are. We have intense players, but I felt like their level of intensity in the offensive circle was a lot higher.”

A decent first half gave way to an impressive second frame for Marriotts Ridge, which earned eight corners and put 12 shots on target.

Less than three minutes into the period, the Mustangs’ doubled their scoring advantage thanks to senior forward Lauren McAauley, who was positioned perfectly on the left post to knock home a goal off a feed from Eloise Clevenger.

McAauley again stood near the left post when Kayla Brusco attempted a shot that forced Kral to make a diving save with about 23 minutes to play. With Kral scrambling to get back on her feet, Leah Bakhtiar charged the rolling ball on the left side and in one motion sent a reverse chip that McAauley somehow redirected in midair. The ball sailed just past the outstretched stick of Kral and into the back netting, increasing the Mustangs’ lead to three.

“No, no, I’ve never,” McAauley said when asked if she’s ever scored on an aerial deflection. “I’ve always wanted to, and now it’s my senior year in high school, and now I finally did it. It’s kind of an accomplishment.”

Now that Marriotts Ridge and Glenelg have both beaten Mt. Hebron and River Hill, the other top teams in the county, it’s likely the Mustangs and Gladiators will square off for a county title when they meet in the league finale on Oct. 16. Marriotts Ridge won the regular season matchup last year — preventing Glenelg from winning at least a share of the county title for the first time in a decade — but the Gladiators exacted revenge in the playoffs en route to winning the 2A state title. Expect another high-level affair when the two heralded programs battle in less than two weeks.

“We just have to continue learning how we can use each other’s strengths in each part of the game,” McAauley said. “We have to work on communicating more on the field, and we just have to learn how to finish the ball when it’s in the circle.”

Marriotts Ridge (3-0, 5-4) — 3, River Hill (2-2, 5-6) — 0

Goals: MR — Lauren McAuley 2, Gracie Kennedy.

Assists: MR — Leah Bakhtiar, Eloise Clevenger, Emma Gladstein.

Saves: MR — Grace Tolle 6; RH — Caroline Kral 10.

Halftime: 1-0, MR

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