The Rome Free Academy field hockey squad showed on Tuesday what true heart and soul they have, especially against the caliber of a team as the reigning Class C state champion in undefeated Cazenovia.
The Lady Knights were backed into a corner throughout the contest and even got behind by two goals at the midway point of the second half. The hosts bent but did not break, and fought back to capitalize on a penalty stroke and then a last minute goal to send it into overtime with momentum on their side.
Unfortunately, the final part of the comeback rally didn’t come to fruition and the Romans were handed their third straight loss, 3-2, in overtime during a non-league matchup at the Stadium.
With the game looking to be well in hand for Cazenovia as time was ticking away in the second half, Rome put together perhaps its best rally of the season when Meghan McCormick and Mckenzie Smith scored two goals within the final nine minutes to knot it up and send it into a 10 minute, sudden-death overtime.
Rome pushed on hard into Cazenovia territory and collected two penalty corners through most of the first eight minutes during the extra frame. That was until the visitors’ Jessy Silfer took back possession and brought it into the Lady Knights’ side of the field, giving Cazenovia head coach Larraine Scheftic a chance to call a timeout with 2:11 left.
When play resumed, the Cougars pushed several members to the net, forcing RFA goaltender Reanna Zappavigna to step out a little farther from the cage than normal, and Emily Willard capitalized on it when she got a hold of the ball by sending it into the left side of the cage for the game-winner. "It was exciting. That’s the nature of the game. You’re up 2-0, but anything can happen," said Scheftic. "That was a good shot by Emily. This is only her second game in probably five games after being out with a back injury. For her it was nice. She’s quick, stayed with it and poked it in."
Scheftic and the Cougars knew heading in that it would not be an easy challenge to topple a Class A team in RFA while trying to extend their undefeated stretch to 11-0. With the Lady Knights coming into the matchup carrying a 4-6 record and losing their last two games, head coach Linda Harjung knew the team’s approach had to be completely different from what it was before.
"We just totally changed the mindset of what we were doing by basically going with an eight player defense," said Harjung. "I said to them, ‘forget about the scoring. I don’t care about scoring. I want my defense to not let them score.’ They didn’t expect anything from us. Our record does not reflect the ability of my team. We’ve had some tough breaks and had a series of things. I couldn’t have asked them to do anything more than they did today," she added.
Their plan nearly worked out in a big way in the end, even though the Cougars capitalized first in the game’s first 13 minutes when Nicole Chiarello answered the RFA challenge by clubbing a nearly 20-yard shot to the net that was met by teammate Sarah Willard, who chipped it in right in front of the net for the score.
Once the second half began, the hosts picked up right where they left by taking on the RFA defense head-on and even scored again at the 17:00 mark when Jessy Silfer hit a slight blooper towards the top of the net for the score, digging RFA into quite a hole to get out of.
Knowing time was not on their side and having to go up against a very stout Cougar defense that allowed only five goals this season, the Lady Knights pushed harder than ever before. They were soon rewarded for it by taking back control of their turf and forced the Cougars to have to stop three penalty corners as well as long, hard shots from McCormick.
It was until the 9:08 mark when RFA caught a huge break when Cazenovia’s Holly Gamlen took a light shot to her chest with the ball falling right into her arms and hands, giving the Lady Knights an opportunity at a penalty stroke for McCormick to take with 9:08 left. Instead of striking with one of her known stingers at goaltender Lauren Devin, she put a soft sweeper towards the left side, causing a slight hesitation to Devin, and put it in just past her to give her team new life and edge closer at 2-1.
"It was not her usual shot, but it doesn’t matter. As long as it goes in," said Harjung. "That was a good choice by her."
Then with time quickly winding down to the end and RFA back in Cougars’ territory, junior Mckenzie Smith made it a whole new ball game when she snuck in the tying goal with a minute and a half remaining off an assist from McCormick.
Although Rome did not get the victory it wanted in the end as its record falls to 4-7, Smith said it showed what the team can really do.
"We came out and played our hardest," she said. "We’ve been down the past two games, but we really pulled it together in this game. It’s just disappointing that we put all that work into it and we still lost. But we did really good."
Harjung feels this game will mean "a ton" moving forward.
"You still feel good when you can walk off the field after a loss like this and not like some of the other games that we’ve had," she said. "We put our heart and soul into this game. It’s a character building season and the kids showed they have a lot of character and got a lot of guts out there. They really took it right down to the wire. Nobody gave up. Not for a second and you can’t ask for that. We weren’t able to put two halves together all season and we did tonight."