Hunterdon Central captures 13th sectional field hockey title

FLEMINGTON — After scoring 12 goals in their first two state tournament games, the Hunterdon Central High School field hockey team needed just one goal to earn the 13th sectional title in school history.

Kendall Nickel redirected home the night’s only goal 14 minutes in and the Red Devils defense held on for a 1-0 victory over Montgomery in the NJSIAA North 2 Group IV final Tuesday evening.

The reward for Hunterdon Central is a third meeting of the season with Bridgewater-Raritan, the North 1 Group IV champion, Thursday evening at Boonton High School in the Group IV semifinals. Bridgewater-Raritan, a 5-4 overtime winner earlier Tuesday, is the defending champ.

Nickel got the Red Devils on the board when she got her stick on a pass from Kailey Dalgauer 13:50 into the first half and redirected it past Montgomery goalie Kiran Sunduram. Nickel said that the goal was just plain execution of the game plan.

“I just did what I’m told, which is keep my stick down and look for the pass. Kailey and I just made eye contact and made the connection and I deflected it in,” she said.

From there, the Hunterdon Central defense made one goal stand up, not allowing Montgomery even a single shot on goal in the game. But it wasn’t because the Cougars didn’t have any chances. During one two-minute stretch midway through the second half, Montgomery earned four consecutive corners, but couldn’t get a shot on Red Devils goalie Hannah Cechini.

Hunterdon Central head coach Jennifer Sponzo, who’s now won seven sectional titles at the helm of the Red Devils, said that the stifling defense was a product of a shift in preparation.

“We definitely knew that they look for the hard drive in on corners, so instead of having Kendall crash through their offensive players, we wanted her to play man-to-man and mess up their plan,” Sponzo said. “We kind of stunned them with that in the first half and the defense just developed over the course of the season.”

Not even a split-in-half ball could slow down the Red Devils on the coldest night of the season. At the exact halfway point of the second half, the ball shattered into two pieces during a collision at midfield, possibly in part due to the temperatures near 30 degrees. But the Hunterdon Central players weren’t slowed by the conditions, according to Nickel.

“I don’t think it affected us because we had our mind set on winning this game,” Nickel said. “I don’t think we thought about the cold that much.”

The quick turnaround to Thursday’s meeting with Skyland Conference rival Bridgewater-Raritan will be a difficult one for both sides, but Sponzo believes that having defeated the Panthers once this season will bode well for her squad.

“We’ve seen them twice and we know what to expect,” Sponzo said. “When I told the girls we were playing Bridgewater, they were excited. It’s sort of like, ‘Bring it on,’ and they want it. I think Bridgewater underestimated us a little bit, said we got lucky in the first game, so that’s a motivating factor. But the girls know they can play with Bridgewater.”

The teams split a pair of regular-season meetings, with Hunterdon Central winning 2-1 in Bridgewater and the Panthers winning 3-2 in Flemington.

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