LEWISTOWN - When the brand-new Huskies defeated District 7 (WPIAL) Class AAA field hockey champion Penn-Trafford two years ago to advance to the state tournament, it was an outstanding accomplishment for Mifflin County in its inaugural season.
Two years later, the District 6 champion Huskies are back in the play-in game, and today they look to top this year's District 7 winner, North Allegheny, for a second opportunity to play in the state tournament.
North Allegheny was a 2-1 winner over Fox Chapel Tuesday to win District 7.
The play-in game is necessary because Districts 6 and 7 share a bracket line in the state field. Unlike Class AA - where Districts 5 and 6 are combined, and there is one tournament - the WPIAL plays its own four-team tournament (out of 12 in the district); the Huskies and State College, the only two big schools in District 6, play for the right to take on the WPIAL champ with the winner getting the state berth.
"I think the kids are playing their best hockey right now," said Mifflin County coach Tish Maclay, who drew on her team's great attitude and sense of cohesion to describe the way the girls have come together at this important juncture in the season.
At this point of the season, when the level of competition is always high, there's no better place for the Huskies to be than playing their best hockey.
North Allegheny's turf field was determined as the playoff spot before the Tigers qualified for the game, but even if the other team has the home-field advantage, Maclay isn't worried.
"No worries at all," she said.
Maclay explained that for the past three years her team has traveled to State College for the District 6 championship, so the transition from Mifflin County's grass field to turf conditions is not one unfamiliar to her team. The Huskies also see turf at a number of Mid-Penn Conference sites.
Located north of Pittsburgh, North Allegheny is a three-hour bus ride away from Mifflin County, but Maclay isn't worried by this factor either. Rather, she said that with the fan bus accompanying the team, the radio coverage of the game and the overall hype that follows the playoffs, the girls are excited and ready for the challenge.
"I think they're excited to play the game and make the trip. For some of them it's the first time to make a trip like this," she said.
To have success against the Tigers, Maclay said the offense will be key for her youthful team.
"I think we have a solid defensive unit, I think our links are able to maintain the way we need them to, but ultimately we need to put the ball in the cage," she explained.
At times throughout the season, offense was a weakness for the Huskies, but Maclay has been pleased with what she's seen this week at practice.
"I think they're looking better. We had a really good practice (Tuesday), and I think they're adjusting to what we wanted them to do."
This season, Mifflin County finished fourth out of eight teams in the always tough Mid-Penn Commonwealth Division, and the Huskies' 8-10-1 record also includes a 2-0 win over State College for the District 6 title.
In terms of play-in games between Districts 6 and 7, the numbers also look good for the Huskies: District 6 has won the game the past three years, although North Allegheny was the last team to win for District 7.
"I think they're prepared. I think it's going to be a close game," Maclay said.
The veteran coach hasn't played North Allegheny recently enough to have seen any of this year's girls, but she has faced the Tigers in the past and she says through scouting efforts she and her team are familiar with North Allegheny's top players.
The winner of the game, which has a 6 p.m. start, will advance into the state tournament to take on the winner of Saturday's fifth-place contest in District 3 between Hempfield and Twin Valley.