Relative newcomer John Champe held its own against host Massaponax for a half in Tuesday’s Region 6B semifinal field hockey game.

The scoreless string ended quickly in the second half, though. Taryn Saunders scored in the first minute of play off the Panthers’ first corner of the second half with Tristen Craig assisting.

With 24:12 remaining, Saunders found teammate Emily Catlett off the right post for a 2–0 advantage and Kristina Venzen and Grace Pietro netted later goals.

The 4–0 victory sent the Panthers to Thursday’s regional final and qualified them for next week’s state tournament for the first time. On Thursday, Massaponax (12–7) will travel to Battlefield, which advanced by virtue of a 1–0 semifinal triumph over Colgan Tuesday.

“I’m really excited. We’ve never gotten this far before,” said Saunders, one of nine underclassmen in the Panthers’ starting lineup. “We were down their [end of the] field a lot, we just had to put it together and chip one in. We connected well offensively; we had good passes and we trusted each other.”

The Knights (8–6), a fourth-year program, battled the Panthers on even terms for 30 minutes. Both team had five shots on goal, while Massaponax enjoyed an 8–4 advantage in penalty corners.

The numbers changed dramatically in the second half with the Panthers holding a 10–4 shot advantage and a 7–0 edge in corner attempts. The Knights’ Julianna Pereira registered eight saves in goal.

“I knew if we worked hard together, we could win this game,” said Kristina Venzen, who was joined by sister Kaitlyn in dominating play on the left side of the field. “We hype each other before the games. We feel really positive and confident. We go in and give our all—a positive mind.”

It was quite a turnaround for a program that was 2–13 a season ago. First-year coach Amy (Tharp) LaFleur admitted the Panthers’ switch from Class 5 to 6 this year proved beneficial, as they avoided facing perennial powers Mountain View and Stafford in the playoffs.

“It’s nice,” Saunders said of the classification move. “We see [Mountain View and Stafford] all the time during the regular season. It’s nice to branch out and see other teams. We have a good mentality and we all work together.”

The players’ athleticism, a balanced scoring attack and a stingy defense have combined to make this a memorable season for the Panthers. John Champe was their 11th shutout victim.

“This team is filled with good all-around athletes,” said LaFleur, who started for North Stafford’s 1988 state championship team. “They just needed a little extra fine-tuning. And with an entire change of coaching staff, they were able to make it click. ...

“I’m super proud of them. They work hard and they work together. We don’t have one or two standouts, we have a whole team.”

Thursday’s winner will host a quarterfinal game against the Region 6A runner-up on Tuesday; the loser will visit the Region A champion. The final two rounds will be played next Friday and Saturday at South County High School in Lorton.

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Kurt Nicoll: 540/374-5440

sports@freelancestar.com

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