November 10, 2021

Sparked by Brilliant Performance from Midfielder Hayes, Hun Girls’ Soccer Edges Pennington to Win Prep A Final

LIFTING THEIR SPIRITS: Members of the Hun School girls’ soccer team celebrate last Wednesday after they edged perennial power Pennington School 4-3 in overtime in the state Prep A title game. Top-seeded Hun rallied from a late 3-2 deficit to pull out the win over second-seeded Pennington to earn the program’s first Prep A crown since 2014. The Raiders, who also won the Mid-Atlantic Prep League (MAPL) title, ended the season with a 12-5-2 record, a marked improvement from the 0-4-1 record they posted in the abbreviated 2020 campaign. (Photo by Jamie McKee/The Hun School)

By Bill Alden

Riley Hayes had a shot to win a championship for the Hun School girls’ soccer team and she wasn’t about to squander it.

With Hun tied 3-3 with perennial power Pennington in the state Prep A championship game after regulation, seconds into overtime junior midfielder Hayes found the ball on her foot in front of the goal.

“I saw it was coming through and I knew I had the ability so it was just take it and shoot it,” said junior midfielder Hayes.

“I knew the opportunity was there and I took it, As long as you have confidence, that’s all it is.”

Hayes slotted the ball into the back of the net to give Hun a 4-3 win and the title, setting off a riotous celebration as student fans from the throng on hand stormed onto the field and the Hun football team bolted over from practice en masse to join in the fun.

It marked the first Prep A title for the team since it defeated Pennington in the championship game seven years ago.

With Hun having gone 0-4-1 last year in a season abbreviated by COVID-19 concerns, rebounding to go 12-5-2 and win both the Prep A and Mid-Atlantic Prep League (MAPL) titles was an amazing reversal of fortune.

“It means so much, these girls are the best girls I have ever played with,” said Hayes, who had two assists in the win to go along with her game-winning tally.

“It was such an opportunity. It was so, so surreal being able to win a Prep A title.”

Having edged Pennington 1-0 on September 28, Hayes and her teammates realized they were in for a battle in the title game rematch.

“We knew that it was going to be a tough game and we knew what was on the line and we just took it head on,” said Hayes. “We had team work, we had confidence and we got it done.”

Showing that confidence, Hun built a 2-1 lead at halftime with Olivia Spektor blasting a 40-yard volley over the Pennington goalie’s head for the first tally and Sophia Kearns finding the back of the net on a scrum in the box.

“We did like where we were at,” said Hayes. “We knew the next goal was going to be a big one.”

With the wind at its back in the second half, powerful Pennington tallied two unanswered goals to take a 3-2 lead and seemed on track to the title. The Raiders, though, were unfazed.

“It was definitely nerve-wracking,” said Hayes, reflecting on the late deficit.

“We had confidence in ourselves and confidence in each other. We just knew what the job was.”

With just over 21 minutes left in regulation, Hayes got the job done, sending a ball through the Pennington defense which Olivia D’Aulerio slotted home to knot the contest at 3-3.

“I saw that she was running and I know that Olivia D’Aulerio is one of the fastest girls I have ever seen,” said Hayes. “I just pitched right into her.”

Neither team scored the rest of the half and the game headed into overtime.

With several OT games under its belt this season, Hun looked forward to the extra session.

“We have been there way too many times before,” said Hayes. “We knew what had to happen and we got it done.”

For Hayes, making it happen with the winning goal was emblematic of the leading role she has taken this fall in emerging as a catalyst for the Raiders.

“I am lifting up my teammates and getting the job done and really having other girls get confident,” said Hayes.

“From last year to this year, that is really what my job is, just keeping them going forward.”

Hun head coach Jenn Barrett appreciates the way Hayes has fine-tuned her game to make the squad better collectively.

“Riley played exactly how we asked her to play,” said Barrett.

“She is a phenomenal player and she had to play a certain game. She has to be very unselfish. She is a very skilled player and she could clearly dribble around
everyone else. We learned early on that just confuses us as much as it confuses them. She just had to adjust her game and she has done it beautifully.”

In the win over Pennington, Hun was fueled by some phenomenal support from its home fans.

“The crowd was awesome, we talked about the huge crowd at homecoming and how it sort of rattled us a little bit,” said Barrett, referring to a 1-0 victory against Germantown Academy (Pa.) under the lights on October 1.

“We talked about letting the crowd be the 12th man and they did. They came in strong, they were amazing. It was great. It really rattled Pennington, they aren’t used to playing away so it was great to play them here.”

Barrett wasn’t surprised that her squad didn’t get rattled when it fell behind 3-2.

“They bounced back, they continually fight and they play great soccer,” said Barrett.

“We said yesterday that this is going to be a mental game over a physical game. Whoever can keep their composure and whoever can play their game is going to win and that is what they did.”

Heading into overtime, Hun wasn’t about to lose its composure.

“The last four games we have played have been in overtime so it was nothing new to us, it helped us 100 percent,” said Barrett.

“The resilience that they have has been like no other team. In past years, we would get scored on and there would be dejection. This gives us motivation to keep going.”

It took a special motivation for Hun to turn the tables after going winless last fall.

“When I took over we had to do a complete turnaround culture shock and restart,” said Barrett, who is in her third year at the helm of the program.

“I kept telling everyone to trust the process and wins will come but it is not going to come quickly. Success doesn’t come overnight. People believed in it, the girls most importantly. The girl believed in the mission and what we are trying to do. They fell into line, it just took a leap of faith.”

In Barrett’s view, a 2-2 tie against Princeton Day School on September 15 was a turning point for the Raiders.

“The PDS game was a huge turnaround for us when we were down 2-0 at half, we came back and tied that,” said Barrett.

“Looking back it seems so insignificant but at that moment to tie PDS after our season last year, we were like, wait, we can do this, we got this. It totally turned us right there.”

Getting sophomore goalie Zoey Palmer back from injury for the title game was significant for Hun.

“Just having Zoey back there again with our mental game, it gave us all of the confidence in the world,” said Barrett of Palmer who made nine saves against Pennington in her first action since a 1-0 loss to Princeton High in the Mercer County Tournament quarterfinals on October 23.

“She is so calm, so hard working and such a wonderful teammate so having her back there made the difference in this game.”

The play of center backs, senior Kiki Mauer, and junior Tooni Olaleye, also made a big difference for the Raiders.

“Tooni and Kiki have been the most solid players of the season,” said Barrett.

“I would say as skilled as Riley is and as skilled as everyone else is, Tooni and Kiki have done the dirty work and have done what they had to do with no recognition and having never played defense. Our whole back line had never played defense before the season.”

On the other side of the field, the team’s skill and balance made it solid around goal.

“That is amazing, we really focus on playing the combination/pass game and realize the kick and run and the shots from 50 yards out aren’t working,” said Barrett.

“We have become very patient and really worked well together.”

Hayes, for her part, pointed to toughness and togetherness as the two main qualities that led to the titles.

“One key thing that we had going this fall is grit and I think it showed throughout the season,” said Hayes.

“It is just a mindset. We have all of these girls and we got so, so close together; I think that is what really made this team successful.”