Middle Township girls' lacrosse advances to first state championship game

TOMS RIVER - It's easy to understand why the team wasn't fazed.

The Middle Township girls' lacrosse team was trailing by three late in the first half.

The Panthers offense - one of the most prolific in state history - was held to just two goals through the first 18 minutes. But something, they knew, would eventually click.

For this offense, it always does.

And with 6 minutes, 20 seconds left in the first half, it happened. Something clicked.

After trailing for most of the opening period, the Panthers outscored Mount St. Mary, 18-2, over the final 31:20, walking away with a convincing 20-7 win in the Group 1 state semifinals Tuesday at Toms River North High School.

After winning the program's first South Jersey title last week, Middle Township moves onto its first state championship game appearance Saturday against North Jersey power Oak Knoll.

"It's one and done at this point. You have to give it everything you have, and that's what we did today," said senior attack Bridget Ruskey. "We just played our hearts out."

Ruskey led the Panthers with six goals. She has more than 100 goals for a fourth straight season and extended her state record to 484 for her career.

Tuesday, though, was a team effort.

Maddie Barber scored four goals and Aubrey Hunter, Kira Sides, and Jenna Herlihy each netted three.

Middle Township (18-2) controlled the draw and was rarely without possession after its run started when it trailed, 5-2. On offense, the team quickly went from looking stumped by Mount St. Mary's zone defense to looking crisp in its cuts. The entire team displayed strong chemistry as it rained down goals on Mount St. Mary (18-3).

"Figuring out the draw made a huge difference," said Middle Township coach Jackie Scuderi. "Once we have possession we know good things will happen."

The run started with a five-goal spurt over the final six minutes of the first half and continued into an utterly dominant second half in which Middle Township outscored Mount St. Mary, 12-1, until a goal by Mount St. Mary with five seconds left.

"It's just an insane feeling," Ruskey said. "This team has never been in this position before. We're just taking it all in and having a good time with it."

Mount St, Mary 5 2 - 7

Middle Township 8 12 - 20

Goals: MSM-Sammy Tush, Meghan Decker 2, Alaina Parisella 4. MT-Bridget Ruskey 6, Kira Sides 3, Jenna Herlihy 3, Maddie Barber 4, Allison Hunter, Aubrey Hunter 3. Saves: MSM-Sabrina Moreho 11; MT-Maggie Slavin 9.

cmehchiorre@phillynews.com