HAMMONTON — The St. Joseph Academy field hockey team went just 3-3 down the stretch of the regular season after getting off to a blistering 12-0 start. The Wildcats lost to Lower Cape May, Mainland Regional and Woodstown — all solid programs and playoff teams.

St. Joe head coach Kassidy Wentzell said those losses might have been a good thing because they helped her team get refocused and understand it was going to take a greater effort to beat good teams, especially when the state playoffs rolled around in early November.

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Since a 2-1 loss to Woodstown on Oct. 21, the Wildcats seemed to have found their mojo again. They beat Egg Harbor Township, one of the best teams in the Cape-Atlantic League, took down Timber Creek, and today scored a 5-1 win over Paul VI to advance to the Non-Public South semifinals. St. Joseph, the No. 2 seed, will host No. 3 Bishop Eustace on Monday with the winner advancing to face either Camden Catholic or Notre Dame in next Wednesday’s sectional championship game.

“We had to get a quick check and it was good to get that before going into the playoffs so we understand that feeling, what is on the line, and what it feels like to lose,” Wentzell said about St. Joe’s struggles late in the season. “In the beginning of the season, those first 12 games, they didn’t know what that felt like. It was a big deal for them to have that feeling so they could be like, ‘wow, we hate this. We can never have this.’ They realized, and they really did step up and figure it out.”

The Wildcats (16-3) figured things out pretty quickly, building a 2-0 lead in the first quarter then extending that advantage over the Eagles (5-15) to 4-0 before halftime. Emily Nelson, a senior from Sicklerville who transferred to St. Joseph from Paul VI prior to this season, got the scoring started by taking a pass from Macie Jacquet off a corner and blasting a goal into the back of the cage. Nelson finished with a hat trick, scoring twice in the second quarter. She came into the game as more of a facilitator than scorer, having notched just five goals all season but leading the team with 12 assists.

“That was my first hattie and it’s cool that it was against Paul VI,” Nelson said. “The game was a lot of fun. I loved seeing the people I went to school with, but at the same time playing here with my team at St. Joe’s is incomparable to anything I’ve ever done. They are my family, and it was so much fun to be able to win and being able to celebrate and score with them. It’s a great environment here and I’m so glad we won.”

“She was excited. We wanted to schedule them during the regular season, but it was good that we got to face them in the playoffs,” Wentzell said. “It was good for her to face that challenge, to know all those girls and to know you have to be composed with your team even though they are your friends. She’s a great player. She’s phenomenal, has great stick skills and I would have her any day of the week. She’s a good leader, too. On the field she coaches these girls about what to do and she’s good at communicating on the field, and that’s really helpful.”

St. Joseph padded its lead to 5-0 with a goal by Brenan Daly in the third quarter, her second tally of the game, off a pass from Ellie Dainton, who finished with a couple of assists. The Eagles’ lone goal came in the fourth quarter off the stick of Lauren DiDomenico.

“Our main objective was to come out strong. We truly didn’t know how they would be. We went out to the game they played against Gloucester Catholic in the rain. We didn’t practice that day, we just went out to watch them. PVI did great in that game so it was good for my girls to see them do well and know this is what we were up against and we need to work harder in practice,” Wentzell said. “I said yesterday, ‘this might be our last practice. If we don’t play well (today) this is going to be our last practice.’ I try to challenge them every day; we’ll run, like, 10 minutes then I’ll say, ‘OK, we’re playing 7-v.-7, it’s overtime, this is life or death and we could lose the game.’ Just trying to put them in situations like that so they’ll understand it’s life or death now, these are the most important games and we have to finish them out.

“I’m excited to keep moving forward,” the coach added. “We play Bishop Eustace at home and that’s a huge advantage, considering they are a big turf team. We’ll be here and we’ll be ready. These girls don’t want it to end. I feel like that’s a big fear for them, they just don’t want it to end. We want to go all the way.”

Nelson certainly is enjoying her time in the red-and-black uniform. She now has eight goals and 12 assists, and five of those goals have come in the last two games.

“We win as a team, we score as a team. It doesn’t matter who’s scoring, we’re all together and that’s the best part about it,” she said. “St. Joe is the best. It’s a blessing and everything I could have asked for. God has a plan for everybody, and this is my plan. We have heart and I feel like we want it more than most people. This is one of our best seasons and not everybody was expecting that, but we’ve come out and worked hard.”

What’s next: St. Joseph hosts Bishop Eustace in the Non-Public South semifinals on Monday, time TBD. Paul VI’s season is complete.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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