February 10, 2016 12:57PM
By LARRY KELLEY
Sun Staff Writer
WETHERSFIELD, Conn. — Throughout this Stonington High field hockey storybook season, it was the Bears’ destiny to win a state title — just the second in school history and first since 1987.
A squad of eight senior starters was poised to take one step further after losing in the 2012 title game. The Bears featured Elizabeth Morrison, the program’s career leader in goals and assists. The team found a coveted edge, elevating their skill level with the advantage of playing on a home turf field surface for the first time. They ousted long-time nemesis Haddam-Killingworth in the quarterfinals.
Every sign pointed to a Stonington coronation Saturday in the Class S final against Granby. But the storybook finish did not exactly follow the script.
Outplayed, outshot and out-totaled in penalty corners in the first half, No. 3 seed Stonington had its hands full against No. 9 Granby, the fourth-place team in the North Central Connecticut Conference, but also the state’s winningest program with 13 state titles.
Then nearly midway through the second half, an Irish blessing changed the Bears’ fortunes, paving the way to a 1-0 victory, ending the storybook season with an 18-2 record and the second state title in five finals appearances.
With top penalty-corner insert Samantha Shroyer resting on the sideline to catch her wind, Stonington teammate Molly Crowley, the regular left forward, took the left penalty corner insert pass with 19 minutes left. She skidded the ball to the top of the scoring circle to Margot Calmar, who fired it back to the left post to an unguarded Crowley, who calmly fired the ball from five feet past a sprawling Granby goalkeeper Alyssa Grimaldi for the game’s only goal with 18:54 left.
“Samantha does a great job with inserts, but I took the inserts all of last year, so I know where everything is supposed to go,” Crowley said. “One of the things I notice on penalty corners is that teams don’t always cover the inserter after the pass. Margot found me wide open.”
Calmar’s towering 6-foot presence keyed Stonington’s defense throughout and she was instrumental along with Lauren Hultgren, Emily Cassata and Tia LaFrance-Boyce in clearing numerous Granby charges toward Bears’ goalkeeper Annie Knizeski in the last five minutes.
“The last 10 minutes of the game was so intense,” Morrison said. “We had to keep them out of the circle and not give up any penalty corners. We did not want the game to be tied and go into overtime and 7-on-7. It was the most exciting stretch of my life.”
Granby (14-6) rode the stick-handling of Olivia Johnson and Krista Iwanicki to force three penalty corners in the last 2:35, including one with 37.4 seconds left. Calmar smacked away the last Granby gasp, hitting the ball toward midfield with 20 seconds to go.
Sometimes overshadowed by the offensive production of Morrison (24 goals) and Crowley (22 goals), Stonington’s defenders were the day’s stars. Knizeski (six saves) stepped up early, kicking away Granby’s Brigitte DeGagne shot from 12 yards out just a minute into the game. Calmar, who missed most of last season with an injury, was a constant defensive stopper.
“Margot played the game of her life,” Stonington coach Jenna Tucchio said, “and Annie came up big. Ideally, we like to come out quickly as we did (in a 4-0 semifinal win) against Thomaston, but when we were forced to make defensive stops early today, it asserted the fact that we’re here to play defense too. It gave us an air of confidence that we could hang with them.”
Stonington appeared caught off guard to Granby’s skill level. In addition to its stick-handling, Granby showed a pop-fly, soft pass maneuver in the air over defenders heads that is not often executed at the scholastic level. The opponent also alternates goalkeepers with Grimaldi playing the first half and Hanna Crose the second after the goal.
“Their stick-handling was crazy good,” Calmar said. “They came out stronger than I expected and I thought they’d be a little slower seeing that they didn’t score on the field in their semifinal (1-0 penalty stroke win over Northwest Catholic). I knew they were a turf team and they looked comfortable on it, but now so are we.”
Just prior to Crowley’s goal, Stonington’s Casey Williams made a long run up the right side and passed in the middle to Meg O’Lari for a shot that Crose kicked away. After the goal, Stonington forced two more penalty corners and Morrison triggered a 2-on-2, give-and-go opportunity with Crowley only to see Crose kick Morrison’s shot away with 14 minutes left.
“I thought we were two equal teams,” Knizeski said. “I never thought one goal was going to be it, but I had to keep focused minute by minute because it didn’t look like there was going to be a lot of scoring.”
Ultimately, Stonington could not ask for a better finish. They were challenged to the hilt by the state’s most successful field hockey program.
“There was such high intensity in the end,” Tucchio said. “You don’t get here without earning it, and today we definitely earned it.”