HUDSON - If the trend continues, it’s a safe bet the Hudson and Shaker Heights field hockey teams will meet again.
For now, though, the Explorers have the upper hand in the Northeast Ohio Field Hockey League.
Host Hudson earned a 3-1 victory over the Red Raiders Tuesday evening at Scott Malson Field. With the win, the Explorers improved to 4-0 overall and 4-0 in the NEOFHL. Shaker dropped to 4-2-1 overall and 3-1-1 in the league.
The Red Raiders, who have sent Hudson packing in the Gates Mills district title match the previous two years, dominated possession and constantly had the Explorers’ defense on its heels.
The statistics do nothing to prove such a fact otherwise.
Shaker had a 21-7 advantage in penalty corners and a 15-7 edge in shots on goal.
In the end, Hudson capitalized on its opportunities and its defense showed nerves of steel when it came to neutralizing the Red Raiders’ high-powered attack.
"Defensively, we were working hard," Explorers head coach Louise Knox said. "This is the strongest competition we've had this season. There was a lot mistakes in the beginning, so it was about learning from them and figuring them out."
Hudson dodged bullet after bullet in the early stages of the match as Shaker had penalty corner after penalty corner.
However, the Explorers managed to swiftly wiggle around the chaos and keep the ball out of the goal. Hudson had a knack for blocking shots and even getting a body on a hard shot after a penalty corner.
And of course, the Explorers had Sadie Mrakuzic on its side.
The junior goaltender used her quick feet to kick away Red Raider shots all evening long to finish with a sizzling 13 saves.
"Sadie proved she is a force in the cage and will work hard on the defensive end," Knox said.
Still, though, Mrakuzic, despite a gritty effort, couldn’t pull off a clean sheet.
After failing to convert on five penalty corners, No. 6 proved to be the charm for Shaker.
The ball went to the Red Raiders’ top offensive player, junior midfielder/forward Lora Clarke, who then made a short pass toward the goal.
Taking the pass was sophomore midfielder Maggie Carter, who took a few steps to her left and poked one into the goal a little more than 11 minutes into the match.
But Hudson responded a little less than four minutes later.
The Explorers, who had very few chances for much of the first half, finally got near Shaker’s goal when they were awarded their first penalty corner of the match.
After a scrum in the middle, sophomore forward Hanna Killeen kept swinging with her stick and wound up tapping in the loose ball to tie the match.
"It's just about continuing to practice those corners and trying to find the right one at the right time by reading the defensive positioning in previous corners," Knox said.
While the Hudson defense denied corner after corner, the offense had a knack for capitalizing on its free opportunities.
With a little more than three minutes remaining in the half, the Explorers got the ball in the middle of the field not far from the Red Raiders’ goal.
Once again, a number of sticks made contact with the ball and it looked like Shaker sophomore goalie Athena Vadnal was going to smother it.
However, the ball was just out of Vadnal’s reach and senior midfielder Tyler Vidmar kept pushing and slapped it past Vadnal for a 2-1 Hudson lead.
"We focus on being scrappy in the circle this year and not worrying about the ESPN top-five highlight type of goal and really just being aggressive," Knox said.
The Explorers spent far less time being under seige in the second half. The Red Raiders didn’t have many penalty corners after halftime until a late flurry in the closing minutes.
"The defense was working on better body positioning," Knox said. ""It's just part of the game. It's unpredictable and the defense was worried more about clearing the ball than protecting their feet [in the first half]. That's part of defensive confidence.
"We're early in the season. I have no doubt we will learn from (Tuesday’s) game and we'll work hard to improve those defensive skills."
Hudson got the dagger with 10 minutes, 31 seconds showing on the clock on - you guessed it - a penalty corner.
This time, the Explorers didn’t need a scrum in front of the net. Junior midfielder Reese Stiller made things far less dramatic with her stick-handling skills.
Taking a pass from the right side of the goal for the first time, Stiller got the ball from senior forward Grace Hildebrand. After gaining possession, Stiller made a nifty move to beat a defender and then flicked a backhanded shot from long range into the goal.
"On Reese's corner, I felt it was the right time to mix it up and do an opposite corner and it worked," Knox said.
The Red Raiders had five penalty corners in the final minutes of the match, but Mrakuzic and the defense stood tall each time.
Knox was pleased to see her team defeat a perennial state power, but she knows there is much bigger fish to fry down the road.
"Any game is a special win," Knox said. "We learn every time we play. Our objective this season is to never take anything for granted and to keep pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone, so that we can be the strongest contender at the end of the season."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.