Panthers edge Ravens to reach Division I state finals

Polytech’s Cecilia Rivera, left, and Sussex Tech’s Lilly Short battle in the first quarter during the field hockey semifinal championship at Sussex Tech on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

GEORGETOWN — Usually, Mairead McKibbin is the one sending the ball in on goal.

This time, though, the Polytech High senior was the one stationed in front of the cage.

And when Megan Popp fired the ball on goal on a penalty corner, McKibbin knew just what to do with it.

McKibbin deflected the ball high into the cage with just 1:06 remaining to give the seventh-seeded Panthers a thrilling 2-1 victory over No. 6 Sussex Tech in the semifinals of the DIAA Division I field hockey state tournament on a cold Tuesday afternoon.

“I knew as soon as we got that corner that Meg was going to take a shot and I’d have a chance to tip it in,” said McKibbin. “That’s all I wanted for us. … It’s really exciting, especially when the team comes running at you and you know you scored the game-winning goal.”

Polytech’s Megan Popp brings the ball upfield against Sussex Tech defenders in the first quarter during the field hockey semifinal championship at Sussex Tech on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The second-straight victory over a higher-seeded team sends Polytech (8-6) to just the second state championship in program history and the first since 2014.

The Panthers will take on Henlopen North rival and top-seed Cape Henlopen (12-1) on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Dover High.

After going 2-5 to close the regular season — against the top programs in the state — Polytech second-year coach Torrie Huk wasn’t sure if the Panthers would even make the state tourney. But she doesn’t think of them as underdogs.

Polytech knocked off No. 2 Padua, 2-1, last Thursday.

“If you look at our record, people think that we didn’t deserve to be in the tournament,” said Huk, a Sussex Tech grad. “But they’ve proven their way every single time. It’s awesome to see. They really stepped it up come post-season.

“I didn’t think we were going to get into the tournament at first. With everything going on, you couldn’t really tell until the last day. However, never, ever in my mind did I think we were (only) a seventh-seeded team. We just hit some bumps in the road.”

The Ravens (7-3-1) had beat the Panthers 1-0 just a few weeks ago. Wednesday’s rematch seemed like it could have gone either way, too.

All three goals were scored in the fourth quarter.

Polytech broke the scoreless tie with just 12:27 remaining.

This time, Cecilia Rivera inserted the ball in on a penalty corner to McKibbin, who passed it right back to her in front of the goal. Rivera gathered the ball in front with her back to the goal, pulled it around the goalie and put it in the cage.

“Our coach was telling us the whole time on the sideline, send it right back to the insert where I was,” said Rivera. “We did that a few times and I just couldn’t execute it. Finally, that time, I got it and i just knew it was going in.

“Definitely, taking a deep breath before I insert those corners helps a lot. Then just really having faith in my team helps as well.”

Sussex Tech, which dumped third-seeded Concord, 7-0, in its tournament opener, answered right back, however.

The Ravens knotted the score, 1-1, on a goal just three minutes later, with 9:34 on the clock. Sussex Tech also scored off a penalty corner.

Sussex Tech finished with a 9-7 edge in shots while the Panthers held a 11-6 advantage in corners. Both Polytech goalie Raegan Thomas and Ravens’ goalie Taylor Bullis made five saves.

The odds will be against Polytech in the state finals. The Panthers have lost all seven meetings with the Vikings in the last three seasons.

That includes three straight losses in the Division I semifinals. But two of those seven setbacks were by a score of just 1-0.

Polytech has already pulled off a couple upsets to get this far. The Panthers are happy for the chance to try to make it three.

“We’re just going to go out there wheels running,” said McKibbin. “In our minds, we’re ready.”

“We’re definitely the underdogs,” said Rivera. “No one was expecting this. But we knew we could do it. Now that we’re here, we’re all really grateful to be here.

“We really have nothing to lose,” she said about facing Cape. “We can just go all out.”

“They’re excited to play,” said Huk. “We’re not going to change the way that we play. It’s a mental game. It’s, ‘How bad do you want it?’ It’s the last game so I expect them to leave everything they have on that field.”