By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — In recent years, the South Jersey Group 3 tournament has been merely a warm-up for Ocean City. The Red Raiders barely broke a sweat in winning five straight sectional titles, and six of the past seven.
And while this year’s team may not be your older sister’s Red Raiders, it’s still Ocean City.
Rival Mainland Regional certainly made Ocean City sweat it out on Tuesday afternoon, taking a 1-0 lead into halftime, but junior Reese Bloomstead saved the day with a hat trick in the second half to spark the Red Raiders to a 5-2 win and a berth in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game for the 10th straight season. The last time Ocean City didn’t play for the sectional title was in 2007, when it lost 4-1 to Shawnee in the semifinals.
This year’s version of the Red Raiders — which has had to make up for the loss of about a dozen seniors from last season’s state championship team — has lost seven games, but is rounding into form at the right time under first-year coach Kelsey Mitchell. Ocean City, seeded No. 2, will take on top-seeded Clearview in the championship game on Thursday. Clearview dispatched a scrappy Absegami team, 6-0, in the other semifinal.
“We knew they would come out strong, like they did in the other two games, but we knew we could do this if we worked together and did whatever we could do to get a few shots into the goal cage. At halftime, we just talked about getting to the ball faster and getting it done, being natty in front of the goal cage,” said senior Haleigh Flukey, who scored with 17:49 left in the game to give Ocean City a 3-1 lead. “This feels great because a lot of people doubted us after losing nine starters, but we’re showing we can do this.”
The Red Raiders (14-7) struggled offensively in the first half without one of its stars, Shannon O’Reilly, who is out with a concussion. Third-seeded Mainland (14-4-3) came out strong and scored the game’s first goal as senior Paige Care knocked home a rebound for the 99th goal of her outstanding career. The Mustangs carried that lead into halftime before Ocean City got things organized and scored the equalizer when Tara McNally scored off a corner early in the second half.
“The momentum definitely picked up after that,” junior Reese Bloomstead said of McNally’s tally. “We all got really excited and we knew we could win at that point. It’s very exciting because we were a little slow in the beginning. I feel like our energy got strong (after that goal) and that pushed us to the end.”
Bloomstead gave the Red Raiders the lead for good with a little more than 22 minutes remaining when she ripped a shot from about 10 yards out on a corner, the first of her game-high three goals. Flukey’s goal put Ocean City up, 3-1, but Mainland — which split the season series with Ocean City — refused to go away, as Mikayla Carson poked in a rebound following a nice save by Red Raiders goalie Maddie Kahn.
The last six minutes were the Bloomstead show, however, as she scored a pair of goals in less than a minute to put the game on ice. With 5:53 left, she lofted a high shot that sailed over the head of Mainland goalie Michaela Brady and into the netting at the top of the cage. Then, 40 seconds later, she scored again to make it 5-2.
“Reese is a key player on our team. She knows what to do on the field and gets it done,” Flukey said. “If we lost, it would have been a big disappointment, but right now we’re ready to move on to the next round.”
Bloomstead said not having O’Reilly in the lineup has been difficult, but other players are stepping up.
“Shannon is a great a player, and people have been doubting us because we lost her, but we proved how strong we are. We just really have to show people that we’re just as good as we have been,” she said. “Yes, we have seven losses, but we’ve played some of the top teams in the state, and they were close games. We just have to move past those games and look forward.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays