Natalie Freeman and Sophia Baxter have been at the center of Marriotts Ridge’s field hockey success all season.
Freeman, an attacking midfielder, and Baxter, a defensive midfielder, provide a one-two punch that many opponents haven’t been able to contain and they gave visiting Mount Hebron double-trouble again in Wednesday night’s Class 3A East Region I championship.
The seniors each scored a goal and Baxter had an assist to lead the No. 8 Mustangs to a 3-1 victory for their second straight regional championship.
“They’re really good,” Mount Hebron coach Jeannette Ireland said. “Natalie’s really fast and she plays with her head up all the time. They both have incredible stickwork and they set each other up pretty well or they set the teammates up.”
Freeman and Baxter connected on the first goal just four and a half minutes into the game. After Mount Hebron tied it five minutes later, Freeman set up Addy Obitz’s tie-breaker in the third quarter. Baxter added an insurance goal on a penalty stroke in the fourth quarter.
“They’re like two pieces of a puzzle. You put them together and they’re the perfect match,” Mustangs coach Molly Milani said. “They anticipate each other and they know where the other is. But they also bring that leadership piece, that in previous seasons, we didn’t always have… A lot of our plays do work around them, but we are most successful when they look to facilitate others.”
The top-seeded Mustangs (10-4) had already beaten next-door neighbor Mount Hebron (9-7) twice this season, but the second-seeded Vikings closed the gap from 5-1 to 5-4, so Marriotts Ridge wasn’t expecting an easy contest and they didn’t get one.
The teams also have recent playoff history. A year ago, the Mustangs slipped past Mount Hebron, 3-2, in the regional final before going to reach the state semifinals where they fell to eventual champion Arundel.
“This is not a team you want to play in a regional final,” said Freeman. “This is a team you want to see later in states. They’re incredibly capable of beating us and of scoring goals on us. Going into this game, we were all like we cannot come in cocky. Two wins doesn’t guarantee three.”
Freeman, headed to Penn State, gave the Vikings a lot of trouble with her speed and she forced many of the Mustangs 21 penalty corners.
Mount Hebron fought off the first corner, but the Mustangs came right back to take the early lead when Baxter fed Freeman at the top of the circle for a drive into the left corner of the cage.
The Vikings stuck back quickly, taking the defense by surprise when they intercepted a pass and seconds later, Natalie Machirin shot between the left post and Marriotts Ridge goalie Will Fullerton.
The game remained 1-1 until late in the third quarter when the Mustangs took the lead on a penalty corner. Freeman again fired from the top of the circle. Maisy Clevenger deflected the ball between her feet toward the left post where Obitz slipped the ball past Vikings goalie Kylie Ritter who hadn’t fully recovered from her scramble toward Freeman’s drive.
Marriotts Ridge continued to dominate the second half and had 10 penalty corners in the fourth quarter. The Vikings upset every one, but when a defender stopped a shot with her foot, the Mustangs got a penalty stroke. Baxter fired shoulder high into the right side of the cage with 10:02 left to all but assure the Mustangs advanced to the state quarterfinals.
“It feels really good. We made it here last year and it’s really exciting, especially with an intense game,” said Baxter, who has committed to Appalachian State.”
The Mustangs, the 2019 state Class 3A champs, will host a state quarterfinal game Friday at 6 p.m. Their opponent will be determined once officials reseed the state quarterfinalists.
For the Vikings, whom Ireland said are a year younger than the Mustangs, steady improvement throughout the season bodes well for next fall.
“I’m just really pleased,” Ireland said. “I thought we played a really outstanding first half and then we just can’t survive that many corners on a team like that. They’re really good and I just felt like we weren’t connecting as well in the second half. We weren’t making the most of our free hits and that was just unfortunate.”
CLASS 3A EAST REGION I CHAMPIONSHIP
NO. 8 MARRIOTTS RIDGE 3, MOUNT HEBRON 1
MH 1 0 0 0 — 1
MR 1 0 1 1 — 3
GOALS: MH—Natalie Machiran; MR—Natalie Freeman, Sophia Baxter, Addy Obitz.
ASSISTS: MH—Tylar Fleck; MR—Sophia Baxter, Maisy Clevenger.
SAVES: MH—Kylie Ritter 9; RH—Will Fullerton 3.