After nine fruitless trips to the state final four dating back to 1996, the 10th time was finally the charm for the Pierson field hockey team.
The Lady Whalers won their first ever New York State Class C Championship at Cicero North Syracuse High School on Sunday afternoon, in dramatic fashion. With just 32 seconds left in sudden-death double overtime, superstar senior Kasey Gilbride dodged a pair of defenders and swept in a shot from the right side during a corner play to lift her team to the historic win over Cazenovia.
It’s the first state championship for the program—the Lady Whalers made the state final four every year from 1996 to 2003 and came back in 2010, losing to Cazenovia in overtime. Gilbride was a freshman starter on that team, along with fellow captain Katherine Matthers. It’s only the second state championship in Pierson sports history—the boys basketball team won a state title in 1978.
Pierson got to the state final after an epic battle with Whitney Point, winning, 3-1, in a double penalty shootout on Saturday. (See separate article).
Gilbride, Matthers and defender India Hemby, also a senior, were named to the All-Tournament team.
The Lady Lakers won the possession battle throughout regulation, drawing 13 penalty corners, compared to just two for Pierson. But the Lady Whalers defense held strong, with some key saves by junior goalie Sam Duchemin and several big-time stops by Hemby. Rachael Miller, Allura Leggard, Erica Selyukova, Gilbride, Matthers, senior Kirra McGowin and others all had strong moments on defense as well.
Pierson head coach Shannon Judge and the rest of the team were happy to see the game go into overtime—the seven-on-seven format gives its most skilled group of players more room to maneuver and a chance to shine. The Lady Whalers started off slow in the first overtime but quickly got into a rhythm. In the second overtime, Pierson drew three corners, the last of which set up Gilbride’s history-making strike.
After the game, Gilbride and Matthers described what unfolded in the final seconds. Gilbride made the play but said Matthers had her back, letting her know which way to go.
“I pulled left, then pulled right and then swept it in—but I was listening to her tell me what to do,” Gilbride said.
One goal was all Pierson needed, thanks to a stellar effort on defense. Seniors Hemby and McGowin, the quarterbacks of that defense, talked about their strategy after the game.
“We just want to get the ball out of the circle,” McGowin said. “Anything to stop a goal—that’s what we do.”
“It was really tough,” Hemby said. “But we pulled together and gave it everything we had.”
The seniors and Judge agreed that they were the underdog, for a variety of reasons: Pierson is the smallest school, in terms of enrollment size, in Class C; it does not have a junior varsity squad, as many of the successful programs do; and the team was playing seven hours from its hometown. And while Pierson possesses a true superstar in Gilbride, Judge said that the entire team’s collective will to win was what pushed it through two games that were as close as they could get.
“It’s absolute mental strength,” she said. “And absolute will to win.”
Judge did not make a single substitution the entire game either, and said she had complete confidence in her overtime seven—seniors Gilbride, Matthers, Emme Luck, and Hemby, sophomore Selyukova, freshman Ana Sherwood, and junior goalie Duchemin.
“I’ll put them against anybody,” Judge said. “Anybody. They’re great. Kasey is unbelievable, and Katherine, her drive is just, I don’t even know. She’s a force of nature.”
The four teams in Class C—Pierson, Cazenovia (Section III-Central New York), Whitney Point (Section IV-Southern Tier) and Barker (Section VI-Western New York)—proved to be very evenly matched, with all three games going into double overtime or deeper. Cazenovia needed double overtime to get past Barker in the semis on Saturday.
In both of their wins, the Lady Whalers had fewer scoring chances than their opponents, as they were outdrawn in shots on goal and corners in each contest. They emerged as the survivors, the seniors said, based on sheer will and determination.
“We leave everything on the field every time,” Gilbride said. “These teams are so great, and they make us better players and a better team in general. They pushed us to our limits, and I think that we really showed who we are as a team, and who we are as a school.”
Payback was on their minds as well, particularly for the seniors, most of whom were members of the 2010 team that were on the other side of the outcome, suffering a heartbreaking loss in overtime to Cazenovia.
“This was our redemption year,” Matthers said.
“We’ve all been working for this since our freshmen year,” Luck added. “We’ve been working to get back to this point after that taste of states our freshman year.”
As for watching Matthers and Gilbride, the two starters from the 2010 team, orchestrate the final play, Judge said she couldn’t have scripted it any better.
“It’s perfect,” she said. “It’s a storybook ending.”