MARLTON – Seldom does a team cobble together an undefeated season without pulling off one or two great escapes along the way.
The Eastern High School girls lacrosse team executed such an escape on Monday.
The Vikings Savannah Slack scored two late goals, including the game-winner as the Vikings rallied from a 3-goal, second-half deficit to edge Cherokee 11-10 in an Olympic Conference American Division game.
The result gave the Vikings their first outright division title since 2005 and their first piece of the crown since they tied with Shawnee in 2013.
The No. 2 Vikings are now 13-0 and they will still face some more challenges before the end of the season.
But they needed a rally from an 8-5 deficit when Mary Carroll scored for Cherokee early in the second half to keep their hopes of perfection alive.
Despite the deficit, the Vikings fought on.
“In a lot of games we actually get down a few goals,” said Slack. “But we never stop fighting. We always have that ability to come back.”
The Vikings have been one of South Jersey’s most balanced offensive teams all season and Monday’s game was no different.
Kara Heck led the Vikings with three goals, followed by Slack, Jess Kinser and Dani Mlkvy with two each. Together they edged a Cherokee team that was led by Gab Bodine with four goals and Tori Hampton with two.
Slack, Eastern’s leading scorer for the season, was held off the board until she scored with 10:33 to play to give her team a 10-9 at the time.
Alex Kulinski tied the score for Cherokee, but Slack scored what proved to the game-winner with 6:10 to play.
“I wasn’t having a great game early,” Slack said. “But I know I can count on my teammates to pick it up when my game isn’t there.”
Vikings goalie Kelli McGroaty then saved the game from possibly going into overtime when she made a sensational stop on a shot by Carroll with 1:27 to play.
McGroarty, who admitted she had some problems with the sun in her eyes during the second half, said she saw that shot all the way.
“She was going down the side where the sun was, but I was able to pick up the ball and get in front of it,” McGroarty said. “I saw it all the way through, but a little bit earlier there were a few I did not see.”
Afterward, Eastern Coach Katie Lee gave her team credit for showing a lot of resilience, not only on Monday, but throughout the season.
“My kids have a hunger deep inside and they never give up – they never quit,” she said. “They believe in each other and they work from first whistle to last. They did that today.
“Cherokee played great, and I think it was all about staying composed when it got to be tight. There was a lot of back and forth, and Kelli made a great save at the end.”
Meanwhile, Cherokee coach Jeff Niederberger was left to think about what might have been.
“It was a tough game to lose,” he said. “Our girls fought hard, and never gave up. We fought to the very end, and I’m proud of them.”
Cherokee showed some resilience of its own early in the game after Eastern jumped out to an early 3-0 lead on goals by Heck, Kinser and Mlkvy.
However, Bodine, who recently became Cherokee’s all-time leading scorer, took over the game for the rest of the half.
She scored all four of her goals in the last seven minutes of the half to help her team take a 7-5 lead at intermission.
The Chiefs extended the lead to 8-5, but then Eastern found its footing and made its own comeback.
They scored four of the next five goals to pull even at 9-9 when Kinser connected with 10:59 to play.
That’s when Slack stepped up and helped deliver the win.
Eastern 11, Cherokee 10
E: Kara Heck 3, Dani Mlkvy 2, Savannah Slack 2, Jess Kinsner 2, Jenna Console, Tori Accardo.
C: Gab Bodine 4, Tori Hampton 2, Jill Westerby, Sam Patrizi, Alex Kulinski, Mary Carroll.