Of the few absolutes in high school sports, one statement that could be written in stone is that the best field hockey in the country is played in the eastern United States.
Gateway Field Hockey went to Virginia Beach and chiseled an asterisk next to that statement.
The St. Louis-based Gateway Under-19 field hockey club won five consecutive games against the best teams from the eastern United States and finished second in the 2021 USA Field Hockey National Club Championships, played June 30-July 2 at the Virginia Beach Regional Training Center.
“Normally East Coast teams are the best of the best, so a team from St. Louis getting all the way to the national championship game was incredible,” said Gateway co-captain Lily Baker, a recent MICDS graduate who will play at Columbia University.
Gateway qualified for the National Club Championships by placing first in its regional tournament.
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Of the 16 teams to qualify, 14 resided in the eastern United States, and when Gateway players arrived at the Virginia Beach Regional Training Center, they immediately embraced an underdog role.
“We were looked down upon or not even looked at,” said co-captain Taryn Tkachuk, a recent Villa Duchesne graduate who will play at the University of Virginia. “They saw we were from Missouri and thought we were probably not good.”
Gateway head coach Vivi Keefer also sensed opponents may have underestimated her team based on its location.
“When we said, ‘We’re from St. Louis,’ we’d get a little less respect that I would care for, but we certainly made a statement and I think they all know who we are now,” Keefer said.
Gateway opened pool play with a 4-1 victory over the hosts from Virginia Beach, with Tkachuk — the Post-Dispatch All-Metro field hockey player of the year from 2018-20 — leading the offensive charge.
“I definitely knew coming in that we were good enough to play with these teams,” Tkachuk said. “We like to play fast and we’re unselfish and that’s what makes us so successful.”
And for Baker, the impressive performance in the opening game provided the springboard for what was to come.
“When we beat our first team, we knew we could do this,” Baker said.
University of Wisconsin ice hockey player Makenna Webster jelled with Tkachuk at the forward position as Gateway won its next two games against teams from New Jersey by 2-1 and 4-3 scores to secure a 3-0 record in pool play.
Webster, who scored four postseason goals as a freshman to help the Badgers claim the 2021 NCAA women’s ice hockey championship, helped Gateway players manage their emotions in pressure situations.
“We were really blessed that Makenna was able to play with us,” Keefer said. “She brings that maturity and leadership from someone who has won a national championship in a whole other sport, and she garners a lot of respect from her teammates.”
Strong play and leadership also were provided by returning college field hockey players Mia Duchars from the University of Louisville and Reagan Calcari from the University of New Hampshire, both MICDS graduates.
That heightened maturity was evident when bad luck struck in the quarterfinal matchup against AGH, a team from Connecticut. Facing immense pressure while preserving a one-goal lead, Gateway appeared to survive long enough to hear the final horn — but the horn never sounded.
“With no time left on the clock, the horn doesn’t go off on the scoreboard,” Keefer explained. “(Sounding the horn) was the responsibility of a person at the (scorer’s) table who wasn’t paying attention.”
AGH was awarded a corner opportunity before the horn sounded, and on its third attempt, put the ball in the cage to advance the game to 1 v 1s.
Akin to a penalty shootout in ice hockey, a 1 v 1 attacker has eight seconds to try to score against a goalie. In the sixth round, Gateway goalie Kendall Curry, an MICDS rising junior, flashed her glove and redirected a rising shot over the top of the cage to advance Gateway to the final four.
“Kendall was probably so exhausted, but she came up with the big save at the end,” Tkachuk said. “I guess karma gave it to us.”
The semifinal was far less dramatic. Led by a dominant defensive performance by the back line of Baker, Visitation junior-to-be Tess Reed and Nerinx Hall graduate and Syracuse-bound Olivia Bell, Gateway shut out Northeast Elite of New England 3-0 to advance to the national championship game.
“Our biggest thing was marking up and staying man-to-man, and we really knew how to transfer the ball and look for space,” Baker said of her chemistry with her defensive counterparts.
Gateway brought a roster of 21 players from eight area schools — MICDS, Villa Duchesne, John Burroughs, St. Joseph’s, Lafayette, Visitation, Nerinx Hall and Cor Jesu — and needed contributions from each one during fast-paced, intense action in scorching temperatures.
“It was super hot, the games were high-level and we were running kids in and out of the game,” Keefer said. “Everyone contributed and executed really well no matter what their role was.”
Team depth certainly was required in the championship game against WC Eagles, a team from Pennsylvania which contained multiple Team USA members and which had defeated Gateway in the championship game of the under-14 national tournament several years earlier.
Tkachuk was unable to play after an injury in the semifinal and Webster took a stick to the leg that required stitches in the title game. Without its top two offensive players, Gateway struggled to generate offense, and the WC Eagles won the championship by a 7-0 score.
“Mid-game, when I was totally down, I thought, ‘You know, we made it. We’re second in the country. This is amazing,’ ” Baker said.
Keefer has coached Gateway field hockey for 20 years and called it the best tournament experience of her career.
“I got so many compliments from coaches and officials about how great our kids were, not only athletically but for their great sportsmanship," Keefer said. "We certainly got their attention and respect."
For Tkachuk, the lasting effect of their performance on a national stage could reverberate in field hockey circles for a long time.
“I’m proud of our team for making it that far and for putting Missouri on the map," Tkachuk said. "We’re really making a name for Gateway, St. Louis field hockey and the Midwest."
Baker added, “It was such an honor to represent St. Louis that way.”