Raider girls look to avenge early loss to Pingry

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By Justin Feil, Contributor
It’s a good thing that Olivia Panagos gained some experience last year.
This year, the Hillsborough High School junior has had to step into a bigger on-field role after injuries left a Raider girls soccer team that already lost most of its defense to graduation short on senior guidance in the back.
With Kristen Malebranch nursing an injury, it was Panagos who was the most veteran player on a defense that consisted of all freshmen in the Somerset County Tournament opening game on Saturday.
“Filling in for a sub leadership role when Kristen’s out and Carly (Swetz) has been out for captains, I feel like Olivia has been stepping in,” said Raiders head coach LeeAnn Best. “Not just by her positive verbal communication, it’s more she just plays hard. She’s focused. She wants to learn. She always wants to make the best of herself. I think she had a lot of control that game. Those freshmen look up to her.”
The defense allowed only one goal late and Lauren Mazich had a hat trick to lead the offense as seventh-seeded Hillsborough stopped 10th-seeded Gill St. Bernard’s, 3-1, in the first round.
“I think we played really well,” Panagos said. “I kind of assumed we were going to win because we were higher ranked. We did really well in the midfield in possession, and we did a lot of plays. It was good.”
With the win, the Raiders will play at second-seeded Pingry on Saturday afternoon in a rematch of game Pingry won, 4-2, almost three weeks ago. Hillsborough, however, had a 1-0 lead early in the game and played well throughout, even if the score was more decisive than the game looked.
“We’re all ready for that,” Panagos said. “Everyone is getting back from injuries. For counties on Saturday, some people will be coming back. We’ll be even better then.”
Hillsborough topped Gill without the services of Malebranch, its top returning defender and only player that started all last year on defense. Up stepped Panagos, who had filled in as a starter last year when the Raiders lost Kate Swetz to injury.
“At first, I was a little nervous because I knew I had to step up and be a leader,” Panagos said. “After the first game, I felt more confident. The freshmen work hard and listen. It wasn’t bad stepping up to be a leader. Now that I’ve done it, I’m a lot more prepared. Next year, when Kristen does leave, I have to step up and take on that.”
The Raiders’ flat back four consisted of Panagos, Alexa Swetz, Allison Cichon and Shelsea Rigby. They played well in front of starting goalie Olivia Bandola and Jill Stanton, the freshman keeper who finished the end of the game. They combined for three saves.
“We weren’t challenged as much, but when we were I think we all worked well together,” Panagos said. “The freshmen are really hard working and they listen. They understand. It wasn’t bad at all.“
With the win, the Raiders crept within a game of .500 at 5-6 overall going into Friday’s game against Watchung Hills. They are hoping to build on Saturday’s county win.
“All four midfielders played well,” Best said. “I think if your midfield can play well, it takes a lot of pressure off the back. We’ve really been working on the midfield to be able to be that triple threat — be defend and attack and also possess.
“That was a game that they all played well. It did take a lot of pressure off the back,” the coach said. “Both keepers were able to get in, too. On the turf, any of those loose balls that come through they have to come out and grab and they both did a good job of that.”
Panagos and the defense hopes to limit opposing teams’ chances consistently as they go forward.
“We have to be big,” Panagos said. “We have to be strong. We have to work together and be a team. If we don’t, we won’t be successful.”
The Raiders will play in the SCT quarterfinals Saturday, then host their annual Kick Out Cancer game at 6 p.m. Tuesday against Montgomery in what is also Senior Night. Hillsborough will be collecting donations to support cancer research as well as selling T-shirts and spirit items for the cause.
“It’s always a big thing every year,” Panagos said. “Everyone always comes. Everyone brings signs. We have our shirts. We decorate the seniors’ lockers and decorate the locker room. It’s so much fun. We love it.”
What has the Raiders even happier about the upcoming stretch is that it seems as though they may finally be at full strength. Being healthy was again an issue against Gill, but it didn’t cost the Raiders.
“My whole issue this season is I have had different starting lineups every game,” Best said. “This was another game where I had more starters out. I started the game with one normal starter on my back line. Every varsity player got in that game so it was definitely a team effort.”
The lack of consistent starting lineup and the subsequent position changes have cut into the continuity of the Raiders. They have responded to the challenge without making excuses.
“It’s always hard because we’re never sure who’s out, or not playing or starting,” Panagos said. “It’s difficult sometimes, but I think we push through it. The game Saturday was good because we did so well with possession.”
Watchung will present a challenge before the Raiders can turn their attention to the rematch at Pingry that could be more telling than anything about their improvements.
“The biggest key is we had some injuries and now they’re coming back at the right time because we’re still hungry to get those wins,” Best said. “They want to keep playing to try to get wins. Now that we’re going to be closer to full force than we’ve ever been, it’s almost perfect timing.
“They’re really excited about Pingry because the first time we played them we had three starters out and we still played them well, even though the score didn’t indicate that.
“It was a very friendly, competitive fun game, so they really enjoyed themselves — both teams,” the coach said. “They were really looking forward to playing them again, and since we won’t see them in states, they were hoping to see them in counties. They’re pretty pumped because all of our starters should be back.”
The Raiders have been happy to have Mazich back on the field. She started the preseason with a broken toe that still can be a problem, but it hasn’t stopped her from being the team’s leading scorer. She added three goals to that total against Gill.
“She missed the Bridgewater game because she didn’t have her six practices in yet,” Best recalled. “She’s another one that rests for practices and then leaves it out there for games and then has to rest the next day or two. She’s still nursing it.
“She’s our best attacker as far as a goal scorer. Other teams know her so she has a tough battle. Other teams, they typically put a better defender on her. She’s been answering the call. She’s trying to add different moves and strategies to her repertoire. She’s becoming a better all-around player and she has a good supporting cast. The goal scoring has been spread out a bit.”
Amelia Curtis had a pair of assists on Mazich’s goals and Bandola was credited with the other assist. They provided plenty of offense and the young defense performed well. They are hoping to use the momentum of the win as they head into the final weeks of the season. Hillsborough is confident it will get a spot in the Central Jersey Group IV state tournament.
“Last time I checked,” Best said, “we’re 10th seed. Our 13th game is Thursday against Watchung. That’s the last time we can earn points. We’re probably locked into somewhere around the 10th spot.”
The Raiders still have goals to achieve, and with getting healthier, they are more confident that they can achieve them. They have the chance to put together their best soccer of the season.
“We’re all looking forward to it,” Panagos said. “Even though the season is coming to an end, we still have counties and states. We’ve gotten a lot better since we started. We’re all pretty excited.”
Hillsborough has the opportunity to show its growth Saturday. The Raiders can avenge one of their earlier losses if they can pull together an improved effort to halt Pingry.
“I think we’re looking forward to it,” Panagos said. “We know that we can beat them. We were almost there. We’re ready to do it. We’re excited. We know we can beat them and we’re looking forward to it.” 