WILLIAMSVILLE — North Tonawanda's dream season keeps on keeping on.
The Lumberjacks were carried by a strong second half showing, which helped them cement the win over Niagara Wheatfield, 4-1, on Monday. The Niagara Frontier League champions have now locked up a spot in the Class A-1 sectional championship game, taking on Hamburg at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Williamsville East.
Both defenses came to play early on, with each school being held scoreless in the first 20 minutes of action. NT's Kirsten Ferree would draw first blood through the midway point in the first half, giving the Lady Jacks a 1-0 lead entering halftime.
The team may have had the first half lead, but NT (15-2) seemed to be outplayed by N-W (12-4-1) early on, especially with how frequent the Falcons were in the Lady Jacks' zone. NT seemed to awaken after that though; with goals coming from Isabella Finley, Kylie Miranto and a penalty kick from Kaylee Valentic, NT's second-half offense came alive to ensure the win.
Miranto had one goal and one assist on the night, while Jessica Hanes also ran the 'O' with her two assists. Lumberjacks head coach Hannah Crouch felt that the second-half gameplay was more on par with how her team has operated this season.
"It was nice to come out in the second half and play our style of game," Crouch said. "I feel like the first half Wheatfield really dictated the pace of play and the style of play."
Crouch also demanded one of her top players, Valentic, to step in the big moment. The sophomore did just that, giving her team a 3-0 lead just under the halfway point in the second half.
"I really challenged Kaylee Valentic in the middle. I told her 'start taking control of the game, start playing,'" Crouch said. "And she really came out in that second half and played much stronger than she did the first, so that was nice to see."
Another major key to the win was the strong play of goalie Isabella Hooley. The freshman was forced into her first career start due to junior goaltender Jessica Tyrell missing action with a knee injury.
It's tough to replace a player like Tyrell with 67 saves and a 84.8% save percentage this year. But when you only allow one goal and make 14 saves as said replacement in your first varsity start, it makes that transition even easier for a coaching staff.
"That was phenomenal. Watching Bella in goal today ... it was incredible," Crouch said, after Hooley remained cool after facing constant pressure from the Falcons offense.
"It was a great feeling. You come out and you have confidence in her, but in the back of your head ... you always have that lingering 'what if our other goalie was in?' But she came out (Monday) and showed why she's on varsity. She showed she deserved to be here and moving forward I feel extremely confident with her in goal."
Hooley had some pre-game jitters, but she quickly shook those off and got to work early.
"During the first half I was pretty nervous," Hooley said, despite shutting out the Falcons until the final minutes of the game. "But as the game went on, and my defenders were there to help me and make sure I'm comfortable, I kept feeling more comfortable playing the game."
Hooley also talked about how Tyrell has instilled confidence in her, even before performing on this big stage.
"She always kept making sure I'm not scared to go in," Hooley said. "Before the game, I got really nervous and she was there to help me giving me tips. But she believed in me, which always encouraged me from the beginning."
Having split the first two games of the year, coach Crouch talked about how N-W was a tough team and that their knowledge/familiarity of NT's formations may have been a reason as to why her team started out slowly. The Falcons many shot attempts were to no avail though and their lone-scorer Monday night was Erin Weir on a penalty kick.
Next up, the Lady Jacks matchup with Hamburg (13-2-2) could be an intriguing one. The Bulldogs are coming off a 7-0 win over Kenmore East on Monday, they've shut out 10 of their last 11 opponents and they'll officially finish the month of October without a loss.
For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, tune in to Khari as a guest on Tony Caligiuri's 'Inside High School Sports,' 10 a.m. Saturdays on WGR550.