Sevenoaks are East of England regional hockey champions

On Thursday 23 November, the Sevenoaks U14 girls hockey team travelled to Redbridge to participate in the last stage of regional finals, a round-robin tournament for the top four school teams in the East of England. The prize on offer for the first-placed team would be a spot at the National Finals in March. Despite having scored 90 goals so far this season, the girls were aware that there would be no easy matches today. And so it proved.

Our first match was against Ipswich School, whom we had seen at the previous stage of regionals just a fortnight before. The girls knew they had to make a strong start, and didn’t disappoint, putting their opponents under pressure right from the pushback. They were rewarded with an early short corner that captain Venetia Barker converted, settling the early nerves with a crisp strike to the bottom corner. Sevenoaks looked much the better side throughout the first half, and carved out a couple of golden opportunities after excellent work from Annabel Cheveley and Abi Scott down the right flank. Each time, the final shot went agonisingly wide of the post. But two minutes before half time, Elena Tsang managed to get a crucial final touch, to finish a flowing move and give the girls a thoroughly deserved 2-0 cushion at half-time.

Within four minutes of the restart, however, following some uncharacteristically careless passing from the Sevenoaks defence, our opponents scored and were back in the match. At 2-1, the match now had a very different complexion. Nerves jangled in the ten minutes that followed, as Sevenoaks made a series of poor decisions defensively and in midfield, failing to clear their lines and creating pressure on themselves. When we conceded a short corner in the final minute, the tension was unbearable. But the defence held firm, and the all-important early win was ours.

Next up were local rivals Kent College Canterbury. Although we had beaten them relatively comfortably in the final of the Kent Championships a month before, nothing could be taken for granted. The match was incredibly tight, although Sevenoaks had the best of the early exchanges, and won a few early short corners. The first broke down, but the second was executed perfectly, with Elena Tsang deflecting Venetia Barker’s pinpoint strike high into the roof of the net, giving the Kent College goalkeeper no chance. For the remainder of the match, Sevenoaks played with confidence, composure and discipline. Keira Bassett was a rock at sweeper, and Eva McDonagh and Lulu Stephens were outstanding at keeping their threatening right-hand side in check. In the end, the 1-0 win was no less than they deserved.

That set up the perfect final match, against Framlingham, who had also by this point won both of their matches, with exactly the same goal-difference as our girls. It was very simple: winner takes all for a place at nationals. Our girls started the match at a ferocious pace, and put our opponents immediately on the back foot. Our attacking press was outstanding, as it had been all day, led by our dynamic captain Venetia Barker, and we kept our opponents pinned back in their defensive third. But, despite our superiority and possession, the first goal simply would not come. After eight minutes, we won our first short corner. Venetia Barker needed no second invitation, and fired a blistering shot past their helpless keeper.

Advantage Sevenoaks. Framlingham responded immediately, and their three strong midfielders began to wrest back control of the game, but our defence once again played with great discipline to cover any breaks and hold them at bay. The score at half-time remained 1-0. The job was half done.

Within seconds of the restart, a pinpoint pass picked out Abi Scott in space, and she expertly drew the goalkeeper before slipping a perfect pass to the tireless Natalya Keller, who made no mistake from short range, slotting the ball into the empty net for a 2-0 lead. Our many travelling supporters might have been forgiven for thinking it would be plain sailing from this point. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Having gone two goals down in this must-win match, our opponents threw caution to the wind, and sacrificed defenders to push players forward. The Sevenoaks girls initially struggled to adapt, and with 11 minutes to go one of Framlingham’s star players scored a brilliant individual goal, after a mazy run which started from deep within her own half. It was a moment that turned the game on its head. What then followed was a barrage of pressure from our opponents, who flooded menacingly forward at every opportunity. Alice Reeve, our goalkeeper, who had been in outstanding form all day, was called into action on a number of occasions, and Isabella Osborne and Maddie Wise showed remarkable composure under intense pressure in their own D on several occasions. We defended a string of short corners heroically, but it just felt that something would have to give sooner or later.

However, having survived that fairly torrid spell, with three minutes left we managed to launch an attack down the right once more, ultimately winning a penalty corner and some breathing space in the Framlingham half. There would be no mistakes now. We held possession deep in their half as the clock ticked down, and at the final whistle several players sank to their knees in celebration, exhausted from their efforts.

A place at nationals was theirs. Every match had been a battle, none more so than this last one, but with three wins out of three, against top-class opposition, our U14 girls had proved themselves worthy champions of the East of England.

Sevenoaks will now represent the East of England at the national schools hockey finals in March, for the top eight schools teams in the country. The adventure continues.

Jon Drury

Squad (goals in brackets): Venetia Barker (2), Keira Bassett, Annabel Cheveley, Alex Evans, Telia Green, Megan Handy, Natalya Keller (1), Ellie Langford, Eva McDonagh, Isabella Osborne, Alice Reeve (GK), Eloise Simpson, Lulu Stephens, Elena Tsang (2), Abi Scott, Maddie Wise

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