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Oct. 18, 2014 — PREVIEW: No. 2 Newtown Square Episcopal Academy (Pa.) at No. 1 Voorhees Eastern (N.J.)

Today, we have a field hockey game which is a rarity in terms of sporting occasions: one for which there may be more talking points after the game than before it.

When Newtown Square Episcopal Academy (Pa.) head coach Gina Buggy and Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) head coach Danyle Heilig set up the game over the offseason, it was seen to be a late test before their respective end-of-season state tournaments. Turns out, it is going to be much more than that.

That’s because of the talent on these two teams. It is plausible that, depending on injury or unforeseen events, that 20 percent of the U.S. senior women’s national player pool leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics may be Eastern and/or Episcopal Academy graduates.

Episcopal Academy is 17-0 and the No. 2 team in the TopOfTheCircle.com Top 10. The Churchwomen are coming off a season in which they finished second in the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools Athletic Association (PAISAA) championship. This year’s group has outscored its opposition 96-7, and has almost certainly secured the top seed into the PAISAA championship through the Inter-Ac Conference.

The team is led by seniors Christy Palazzese and Ali Rushton, both of whom will be playing ACC field hockey on Tobacco Road; Palazzese at Duke, Rushton at UNC. The player to watch, however, is junior winger Margaux Paolino, who has this innate ability to melt through players with her skills, and is a playmaker with an unwillingness to give up on a situation. Paolino is a member of the U-19 national team, and teammates Maddie Bacskai and Corinne Zanolli are on the U-17 national team.

Eastern, for its part, is 14-0 and the No. 1 team in the TopOfTheCircle.com Top 10. The Vikings are on a dominant run of form within the state of New Jersey, winning the last 15 New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) state championships. The team has also won five NJSIAA Tournaments of Champions, the unique competition amongst the state’s five sanctioned champions.

This season, the Vikings have struck a rich seam of form which is unknown in the history of the sport in the United States. The team has outscored its opponents 148 to 8 this season. Given the fact that the team’s season is about half over, the potential is astronomical if you do the math. No opponent has gotten to within six goals of the Vikings this season.

One reason for this run of form is the play of senior Austyn Cuneo. The future UNC Tar Heel has already been labeled as the greatest scholastic field hockey player of all time in at least three publications. Given the numbers, it is hard to make an argument against it. Cuneo holds National Federation records for most goals scored (287 and counting), most goals in a season (96), and consecutive games with a goal scored (57 and counting).

She has also set benchmarks not in the Federation record book, such as highest goals totals for a freshman (69), sophomore (68), and a junior (96). She needs just 29 goals to eclipse former U.S. captain Tracey Fuchs for the senior class record of 82. Just as important, Cuneo needs only 13 more goals to get to 300 in a career — a legendary goals total in a sport in which goals are rare.

Cuneo has been noticed by the national high-performance system, having been selected to the U-19 national team pool alongside teammate Madison Morano, while Mackenzie Keegan is in the U-17 national side. Aside from these three, junior Nikki Santore (34 goals, 26 assists) has been having a splendid season.

For Episcopal Academy to win the game, the team needs to withstand the Eastern high-line of pressure and not cough up the ball in its own half. The Churchwomen need to use the same speed and skill Eastern has and force the Vikings to play defense, which it’s hardly had to do this season. I think EA is also going to have to get good goalkeeping from Rachael Farmer.

For Eastern to win this game, the team needs to not be overconfident, especially when it comes to corner execution. In games in which Eastern has struggled, the team has often shot right at the goalkeeper on short corners, something which was costly four years ago in the Tournament of Champions loss to Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.). I think Cassie Kincaid is going to be put to the test in the Eastern goal, and how well she organizes her defense will be key to the outcome.

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