ANNAPOLIS — After Thursday’s state semifinal game, Oakdale field hockey player Emma McGaha’s eyes begin to tear up a little in the light rain, and her voice became high-pitched and shaky.
She had symptoms of an athlete who had just experienced a crushing loss in a high-stakes contest, but the words she spoke indicated otherwise.
“It’s amazing,” the senior forward said. “We’re going to states.”
McGaha, taking a feed from Allison Grunwell, scored with 1 minute, 23 seconds left in overtime to lift the Bears to a 1-0 win over Parkside in the Class 2A state semifinals at Broadneck High School.
The win sends Oakdale (14-5) into the state championship game against Marriotts Ridge — which beat Hereford in penalty strokes in the other semifinals game. The final will take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Chesterstown’s Washington College.
Oakdale was making its first state tournament appearance since the field hockey program began in 2010. Did the Bears realistically envision playing for that title when practice began in August?
“I did not think we would, I really didn’t. Because the farthest we’ve ever gotten was the third round of playoffs,” McGaha said. “And here we are, what is it, the fifth round of playoffs? And we’re going to states, and no one in Oakdale history has ever done that before in all the 10 years.”
During regulation, Oakdale showed it could hold its own with Parkside, which was making its first state tournament appearance since winning a state crown in 2005.
Still, the Rams (15-4) generated more scoring opportunities, outshooting the Bears 12-7 on the night. And in overtime, Oakdale had to deal with adversity.
Taylor Hardesty, one of Oakdale’s top scoring threats, left the game for good after suffering a wrist injury with 4:45 left in regulation. And with 2:29 left in overtime, the Bears lost their top scorer, Kiersten Hoffman, who got hit in the kneecap with a stick.
“Battling a little bit of injuries,” Bears coach Allison Dudley said. “But luckily, we have a pretty deep bench where we’re comfortable throwing anybody out there. And it worked out. We got a couple of fresh faces in during that overtime.”
The Bears also had a pair of familiar faces out there in McGaha, another dangerous scorer, and Grunwell, a midfielder who makes vital contributions on defense and offense.
On a night when she teamed with defenders such as Sam Mogar and goalie Lilly Murphy to fend off Parkside’s pressure early in the game, Grunwell set the stage for the game-winning goal. With the ball on the right side, she sent it toward the cage.
“I was just trying to get the pass off because they’re a fast team,” Grunwell said.
McGaha had already come close to scoring a couple times on Thursday, including on a shot less than a minute before her final one. She finally converted, getting the ball while Parkside goalie Kaitlin Cashman was on the ground after diving to block it.
“She couldn’t get back up,” McGaha said. “And I was able to take it, and I took a giant sweep into the cage past the defender and the goalie.”
The Bears held an edge in possession during overtime. Also, they did a better job containing Parkside’s attack in the second half.
“The second half, our stamina was super strong. We’ve been running like a mile of sprints every day,” Dudley said. “I think that showed tonight, all their skills and endurance. And that overtime, we love overtime. We could do overtime every day.”
Dudley also praised Murphy’s performance when the Rams were applying heavy pressure in the first half. The goalie made crucial saves in regulation, then faced some threats in overtime.
“Since it’s sudden death, it gets so much more intense,” she said. “You think it’s intense in the beginning, but that — I mean, that’s everything because if a goal gets in, you can’t recover.”
Murphy rattled off names of teammates who came up big, including McGaha, Grunwell and Mogar, who unleashed long, hard drives all night. She said the Bears simply work well together, a quality that countered any jitters they might’ve felt while trying to reach the state final for the first time in program history.
“We’ve never made it that far before,” Mogar said. “Every practice, we pushed harder and harder to make it to this point.”