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October 14, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, October 14, 2005

Fought to a draw Fought to a draw (October 14, 2005)

St. Francis holds down potent Mitty attack, forces scoreless tie

By Scott Campbell

After sweating through an early Mitty onslaught that included four short-corner plays within the game's first eight minutes, St. Francis field hockey coach Kathy Lincoln knew her pre-game directives had gone out the window.

"So much for the 'Score early' ... 'Go out and take charge,'" joked Lincoln afterwards.

Even though that opening sequence signaled a game-long offensive domination by the host Monarchs, a sterling effort by St. Francis' defense allowed the Lancers to salvage a 0-0 (OT) tie on Oct. 7.

In all, St. Francis survived a whopping 14 short corners -- a set play that results from a defensive penalty in the half circle in front of the goal -- by Mitty.

None of those stops was more critical than the one made by Lancers sophomore Steph Byrne with 30 seconds remaining in the 7-on-7 overtime period. The 'rush' defender on St. Francis' short-corner unit, Byrne made a beeline at Mitty's Kate Holcomb, deflecting the ball before the Monarch's powerful midfielder could unload a shot.

Asked to describe her fearless play in thwarting the potential tie-breaking goal, Byrne said, "All I think is, 'Stick down low. Just go right through and break 'em down.'"

The inability of her team to convert any of its scoring opportunities made for a frustrating afternoon for Mitty coach Justina Williams.

"I'm disappointed we didn't get one in," said Williams, whose defending CCS co-champion team suffered the first blemish on its otherwise perfect record. "With 14 penalty corners ... we've got to get one of those in."

Mitty (10-0-1, 5-0-1 Mt. Hamilton) could take heart in almost completely blanketing the Lancers' attack. Whereas St. Francis' team speed, especially on its forward line, typically leads to breakaway scoring chances after knocking the ball outside, the Monarchs' stick handling and solid defense kept the Lancers in check.

"We didn't do a good enough job trying to get around them," said Lincoln. "We kept trying to go through them."

As a result, St. Francis (7-1-2, 3-1-2 Mt. Hamilton) managed a precious few trips inside Mitty's circle and just one short-corner opportunity for the game.

That put the pressure squarely on St. Francis' defense, and the Lancers proved up for the task in the face of an unyielding Mitty attack. With senior goalkeeper Ashley Nucera frustrating the Monarchs with her cat-like reflexes and defenders Nichole Shuer and Soula Ellenikiotis having a nose for the ball, the Lancers were able to keep Mitty scoreless in this mid-season battle between Mt. Hamilton-division contenders.

Referee Kam Gill offered an unsolicited opinion in pointing to the reason behind St. Francis' ability to fend off Mitty's attack: Nucera.

"She's an excellent goalkeeper," said Gill. "She's smart and fast."

"It doesn't really faze me," Nucera said of being under siege in the Lancers' cage. "You just have to stay focused.

"It's basically instincts and adrenaline that keep me from getting nervous or scared. When we're out there, the ball is my only goal and that's what I focus on."

In playing the division-leading Monarchs to a draw on the road, St. Francis showed plenty about its character and resolve, especially after a down year in 2004 that left the team out of the CCS playoffs for the first time.

"Yeah, coming here on the road today with [Mitty's] really nice record, it was a little bit intimidating, but we were confident," said Shuer, a Lancers co-captain and senior center defender. "We know how good of a team we are and we knew we could step up to play them today."

In a nod to the program's decorated history, which includes appearances in three consecutive section championship games from 2001-03, the Lancers have the singular goal of resuming the glory days.

"I think last year was kind of a wake-up call," said St. Francis co-captain Kathryn Kamenski, who saw her team fall out of CCS contention just a year after sharing the section title with Los Gatos in 2003.

"Everything that we do is so that we can get better and make sure that in time for CCS we'll be ready."

E-mail Scott Campbell at [email protected]

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