Trenton times girls lacrosse notebook: MCT begins as top seeds hold on for wild ride

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The Mercer County Tournament has already begun with a play-in game between 16-seed Hamilton and 17-seed Ewing, won by the Hornets 10-4 on Monday. Things will really kick into gear on Wednesday as first round play begins with eight of the higher seeded teams playing to advance to the second round.

If recent history is any guide this should be the most competitive county tournament in recent memory as the top eight seeds have all been involved in one or two goal games against one or more of their opponents.

Seeds were determined by the Laxnumbers ranking. Lawrenceville (5-4) is the top seed and will be in the same bracket as 4-seed Notre Dame (5-5), 5-seed Hun (5-3) and 8-seed Hopewell Valley (6-5). Allentown is the 2-seed and will be on the same side of the bracket as 3-seed Princeton (10-3), 6-seed Princeton Day (6-6) and 7-seed Robbinsville (8-3).

This year the top four seeds will not play until the quarterfinals, so in effect the remaining 12 teams will be battling it out for four quarterfinal spots.

First round play opens Wednesday with four games. Hamilton, after its win over Ewing, will play at 9-seed Hightstown (4-7). The 13-seed, West Windsor-Plainsboro South (5-6), will travel to 12-seed Stuart (4-6), the 14-seed, Lawrence (1-8), will play at 11-seed West Windsor-Plainsboro North (3-9) and 15-seed Steinert (7-5) will be on the road against 10-seed Pennington (1-8).

In second round action on Friday, the Steinert-Pennington winner will play at 7-seed Robbinsville, the WW-P North-Lawrence winner will play at 6-seed Princeton Day, the WW-P South-Stuart winner will play at 5-seed Hun and the Hamilton-Hightstown winner will play at 8-seed Hopewell Valley.

But it is Monday’s quarterfinal action when things really start to get interesting. This year’s quarters may turn out to be the most competitive slate of quarterfinal games from top to bottom in the history of the tournament. The eight top seeds have been waging war all season and will enter their respective games with a chance to win.

The 8-seed versus 1-seed game is usually the least competitive and that is likely to be true on Monday as well. The MCT has not been contested for two years but the Big Red won three straight championships the last three years the tournament was contested. However, Lawrenceville, which has defeated Princeton 10-9, Hun 17-5 and Princeton Day 16-6 already this season, may not be as formidable as it has been in the past. Hopewell Valley is a much improved team from a year ago and has a lot of offensive firepower.

The Bulldogs are fresh off a 7-6 win over Notre Dame and boast the area’s second leading goal scorer and its second most successful draw control specialist in Peyton Branagh. Her total of 65 points is third in the area. She has 57 goals. Hopewell also has the No. 3 assist leader in the area in Taina Harkins. She has 28 assists and 25 goals so far this season. Anderson Cappucci has added 23 goals to the Bulldog effort this spring.

But make no mistake about it, Lawrenceville is still the team to beat. The Big Red plays a brutal schedule, so their 5-4 record can be deceiving. Lawrenceville suffered a 10-9 loss to No. 12 Pingry and a 12-9 defeat to New York’s Sacred Heart Academy, which had defeated New Jersey’s top ranked team, Summit, just five days earlier. It is Summit’s only loss of the season.

The Big Red offense is driven by a pair of veteran playmakers and scorers in senior Bella Koch and junior Jaelyn Bennett. Koch has scored 89 goals and added 37 assists so far in her Lawrenceville career and has 19 goals and 14 assists so far this season. Bennett is the team’s points leader with 23 goals and 11 assists heading into the tournament. Freshman Lexie Koch is the team’s leading goal scorer, with 24.

Coach Lisa Ewanchyna always has her team ready to play come tournament time, particularly on the defensive end. In addition, the Big Red has one of the area’s top goalies in Melissa Josephson, who ranks among the top five in the area in saves.

Notre Dame is the 4-seed and Hun, as the 5-seed, is favored to face the Irish on the same side of the bracket as Lawrenceville. Notre Dame was a young but talented team to start the season. Things have not gone well for Bryan Fisher’s crew, however, as the Irish were without the services of its top returning goal scorer, Amelia Eilbacher, all season. Now they have lost Sammy Renda, who had 22 goals and five assists, as well as leading the team in draw controls before going down with an ACL tear.

Eilbacher has returned to the lineup, playing in the goal in the loss to Hopewell Valley but it’s clear that Notre Dame’s offensive punch will be greatly diminished. But the Irish can play defense and do it as well as anyone in the tournament. With senior Stella Scudillo leading the defensive unit and Emily Brady in goal, Notre Dame will remain tough to score on. And there are still some offensive threats as well. Junior attacks Naomi Kahney (19g.,10a.) and Alyssa Leinhard (24g.,4a.) have been a consistent force all season.

Hun is 5-4 but all four of its losses came at the hands of Mid-Atlantic Prep League opponents Blair, Lawrenceville, Mercersburg and Hill. The Raiders are one of the most improved teams in the area and proved it last Friday night when they erupted for seven first half goals to defeat Princeton Day 10-6.

The Hun offense is led by Ava Olender, who leads the team in all offensive categories, including points (40), goals (32) and assists (8). She is part of a three player contingent that includes sophomore Olivia Kim (22g.,5a.) and junior Maggie Maffia (12g.,4a.), who constitute the bulk of the Raiders’ scoring threat. For all the scoring, it was the Hun defense that sparked the win over PDS last week, including a nine save performance from goalie Angelina Vitale.

The bottom half of the MCT bracket is composed of teams who have engaged in a whirlwind of close contests throughout the regular season. Princeton’s most likely quarterfinal opponent would be Princeton Day. The Little Tigers barely got by the Panthers 14-13 just five days ago as they had to overcome a 12-10 PDS lead in the final quarter of the contest to win.

There may be no team in the tournament more tested under pressure than Princeton, which, in addition to the win over PDS, lost a one goal decision to top seed Lawrenceville, and won a 10-9 overtime decision over 2-seed Allentown, coming back from three goals down with only 1:43 remaining. The Little Tiger offense is explosive, boasting the first and fourth highest goal scorers in the area, Kate Becker (66) and Riley Devlin (46), respectively. Defenses also need to try and stop senior midfielder Grace Rebak, whose 32 assists ranks her second in the area. The Princeton defense is also solid, and includes the area’s premier goalie, Gigi Peloso.

In addition to its close call with Princeton, Princeton Day also owns a 12-11 victory over Hillsborough of the Skyland Conference and are battle hardened after games with No. 6 Haddonfield, Lawrenceville and Blair Academy. Right now, Paige Gardner is one of the area’s hottest offensive players, scoring 21 goals in her last five games, including six in the near miss against Princeton. She leads the team in both points (49) and goals scored (41). The Panthers also have a couple of big time playmakers in Ali Surace, who has scored 24 goals and has 14 assists, and the team’s assist leader Tessa Caputo, who has 16 as well as scoring 13 goals.

The Panthers can attack from almost everywhere as Elle Anhut (14g.,6a.), Kelly Christie (12g.,8a.) and Maggie Zarish-Yasunas (14g.,4a.) are all threats.

Allentown has to be looking forward to a semifinal rematch against Princeton but the Redbirds won’t have an easy time getting past its quarterfinal opponent if the seeds hold and it turns out to be Robbinsville. The Ravens are a formidable squad. They have plenty of sprinters in the lineup and they love to run. They lost to Allentown back on April 20 by only two goals, 9-7. In fact, Robbinsville actually outscored the Redbirds in the second half 4-3.

Sophomore midfielder Kendall Franke (28g.,8a.), senior attack Danielle Sieja (26g.,12a) and senior midfielders Sydney Sieja (22g., 7a.) and Alyssa Leale (19g.,4a.) all like to run, love to move through transition in a hurry and pass the ball in tight spaces. The Ravens can be very tough to defend against but they will need to be at their best against an Allentown team that has looked truly impressive so far this season.

The Redbirds outplayed Princeton for most of the first meeting between the two schools, in spite of being tagged with the loss. They also were within three goals of No. 19 Hunterdon Central earlier in the season, losing 11-9 in a game that they led 7-5 at the half.

Allentown is for real. They are quick, athletic, tenacious on defense and their lightning quick transition game creates lots of offensive opportunities. Chloe Conti, who is the area assist leader with 37, not only creates the offense, she is also the team’s second leading goal scorer with 29. She most often passes to the team’s leading goal scorer, Jolee Roth, who is third in the area with 51. Allentown has also been a terror on draw controls this season as Conti, with 67, is the area leader in that category while Miranda Ricciardi is third with 49.

The semifinals will be played in a doubleheader at Allentown on Wednesday, May 11 at 4 and 6 p.m. while the final will be held at Allentown on May 13 at 5 p.m.

A look ahead

Wednesday, May 4: Burlington City at Ewing 4 p.m. The improved Blue Devils will be looking to pick up their first win of the season when they host Burlington City.

Thursday, May 5: Hillsborough at Princeton, 3 p.m. The Little Tigers wrap up a grueling nine day stretch of games when they host the Skyland Conference’s Raiders.

Monday, May 9: MCT Quarterfinals at Lawrenceville, Allentown, Princeton and Notre Dame. Four games are scheduled for what should be the most competitive quarterfinal round in recent MCT history.

Player of the Week

Hopewell Valley’s Peyton Branagh was already coming off of a week when she scored 18 goals, including an eye-popping 12 in the Bulldogs’ win over Northern Burlington the previous Tuesday. But Branagh continued to climb up the area’s leader boards in all offensive categories this past week, as she scored 13 more goals and added three assists to help lead Hopewell Valley to a pair of wins over Hightstown and Notre Dame.

Branagh was the area’s top goal scorer a year ago, with 79, but had not been as prolific early in the 2022 season. But in the last two weeks Branagh has put the ball in the net 31 times as her team has gone 4-2.

She began the week with a seven goal performance against the Rams in a 17-4 Hopewell win. The Bulldogs would lose their next game, 11-9 to the Skyland Conference’s Montgomery. But Branagh still made a significant contribution to the offensive output, scoring four goals and adding two assists.

Two days later, she had her lowest goal output of the week but she helped produce the biggest win of the year for Hopewell Valley so far, a 7-6 decision over Notre Dame in Lawrenceville. The Bulldogs spread out the scoring in the game, getting goals from six different players, but Branagh was still the team’s top scorer, scoring two goals and adding an assist.

Branagh’s play last week went beyond goals and assists as she also won 32 draw controls in the three games. That puts her second among all area players in draw control wins with 62, behind area leader Chloe Conti of Allentown, who has 67.

Branagh is now also back near the top of the area leader boards in both points and assists. Her 65 points is third behind Conti, with 66, and leader Kate Becker of Princeton, who has 82. Meanwhile, with 57, she has moved into the second spot in goals scored behind Becker, who has 66.

Trenton Times Great Eight

1. Lawrenceville (5-4)

2. Princeton (10-3)

3. Allentown (10-4)

4. Hun (5-3)

5. Princeton Day (6-6)

6. Robbinsville (8-3)

7. Montgomery (5-8)

8. Hopewell Valley (6-5)

Times Area Point Leaders

1. Kate Becker (Princeton) 82

2. Chloe Conti (Allentown) 66

3. Peyton Branagh (Hopewell Valley) 65

4. Allison Lee (Stuart) 58

5. Karina Harrison (Northern Burlington) 55

Times Area Goal Leaders

1. Kate Becker (Princeton) 66

2. Peyton Branagh (Hopewell Valley) 57

3. Jolee Roth (Allentown) 51

4. Riley Devlin (Princeton) 46

5. Allison Lee (Stuart) 45

Times Area Assist Leaders

1. Chloe Conti (Allentown) 37

2. Grace Rebak (Princeton) 32

3. Taina Harkins (Hopewell Valley) 28

4. Karina Harrison (Northern Burlington) 25

5. Natalie Mathis (New Egypt) 20

Times Area Draw Control Leaders

1. Chloe Conti (Allentown) 67

2. Peyton Branagh (Hopewell Valley) 62

3. Grace Rebak (Princeton) 49

4. Miranda Ricciardi (Allentown) 49

5. Sydeny Sieja (Robbinsville) 43

Times Area Save Leaders

1. Mallory Joiner (New Egypt) 128

2. Emma Gibbs (Hamilton) 116

3. Shannon Houtenville (Hightstown) 114

4. Brooke Hill (Montgomery) 106

5. Melissa Josephson (Lawrenceville) 84

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