VOORHEES – There have been many incidents in all levels of sports where the magnitude of a given game proves too much for younger players to handle.
They melt away and blend into the background, leaving it to their older, more experienced teammates to rise to the occasion and make the big play.
Then there are young players like Clearview High School freshman Hailey Russo, who seem to crave the spotlight. They do their best work when on the center of the stage.
Russo scored six goals Thursday, including two in the last seven minutes of the game, as the Pioneers held off Eastern 14-11 to win the school’s second-ever South Jersey Group 4 championship.
“She is an all-around amazing person,” said coach Megan Conklin. "She has a work ethic you wouldn’t believe. She thrives for games like these.”
With the help of her teammate Dani Paterno with four goals, and Camryn Pennpacker who added three, Russo led the Pioneers into the state semifinals in a game to be played Tuesday at Moorestown.
A senior, Paterno, has come to know Russo well.
At the beginning of the season Paterno and Russo were designated as team `sisters’ meaning it was the job of the older player to nurture the younger and help her adapt to performing at the varsity level.
“She was born for this,” Paterno said. “This was in her blood since she grew up. In these situations, she really thrives in them. It’s amazing really.”
Despite all the accolades, Russo made one minor concession – that she was a little bit nervous on the bus transporting the team to the game.
But the feeling didn’t last for long.
“I got my butterflies, but once I got out here the whole team just gave me do much confidence,” Russo said. “I can usually calm my nerves as the game goes along.”
Like most players competing at this level, Russo started young. She began playing lacrosse as a fourth grader, and then gave up soccer to devote her full attention to the sport.
She was not surprised that she earned a role as a starter on a team that has 10 seniors on the roster.
“I worked really hard in preseason,” Russo said. “I was really hoping the team would give me a chance.”
Russo spoke about how and she Paterno have complemented each other all season.
“She’s such a dominating player,” Russo said. “When she’s scoring and I’m scoring, we set each other up. We’re like in the center of everything.”
Actually it was Paterno and Pennypacker who set the tone of the game early as each scored two goals to get the Pioneers hot to a 4-1 lead.
Cleaview then extended that margin to 8-1 as Paterno added another goal and Russo scored twice.
That early surge set up a game-long uphill battle for Eastern, and the Vikings accepted the challenge.
They pulled to within 8-4 as Kara Heck scored three straight of her five goals, and they stayed within striking distance through much of the remainder of the game.
The Vikings resilience came as no surprise to Conklin, who had seen her team lose two close games to Eastern during the regular season.
She knew the Vikings had trailed in several games this season, but they came back for wins.
“In other games they were down, sometimes by quite a way,” she said. “But they always seemed to find a way. They have a lot of grit and a lot of will to win and we had to take that down a little it.”
Thanks to goals by Pennypacker and Russo in the last 24 seconds of the half, Clearview seemed to have a safe 10-4 lead at intermission.
They pushed that to 12-4 early in the second half on goals by Russo and Paterno, but then Eastern scored seven of the game’s last 10 goals.
First, Tori Accordo scored two goals and Jess Kinser added one to cut the deficit to 12-7.
Then Eastern’s Savannah Slack scored two of her three goals and Heck added one get the deficit down to 13-10 with still 9:28 to play.
But then Clearview started successfully running time off the clock and Russo scored a late goal to keep the game out of reach.
S.J. Group 4 Championship
Clearview 10 4-14
Eastern 4 7-11
Clear: Dani Paterno 4, Camryn Pennypacker 3, Hailey Russo 6, Alyssa DeAngelo, 1
East: Kara Heck 5, Savannah Slack 3, Tori Accardo 2, Jess Kinser 1.