When Severna Park and South River convene on the Old Mill High School field at 4 this afternoon for the county field hockey championship game, the South River defense will probably be guarding the left post of the goal cage like armed guards around Fort Knox.
That is the spot from which Tara Gardner, Severna Park's junior forward and scoring phenom, has tallied most of her 26 goals, tops among all public school players in the county.
Sometimes she darts quickly to the cage when the ball is played in close to the goalie; sometimes she quietly meanders down the field, roaming alone in the opponent's zone and anticipating an offensive burst from her teammates at the other end; sometimes she's just, in the words of longtime Falcons Coach Lil Shelton, "in the right place" when a loose-ball scrum ensues in front of the goalkeeper.
All the aforementioned methods seem to be working, as the 16-year-old -- who is playing in her first full season on the varsity, currently ranked No. 1 by The Post -- has been the offensive force behind Severna Park's 14-0 record.
"You know, some people are just athletes, and they just pick up the ball and run with it," said Shelton. She has coached this team for the better part of three decades, winning 14 state titles, and knows a thing or two about talented players. "We bring the ball down and it just comes right across that goal [crease] and she's right there just to touch it in. She doesn't swing big, she just redirects."
In Monday's regular season finale against Southern, Gardner demonstrated just how quickly she can change the score. Three minutes after entering the game, Gardner, perched near that familiar left post, found a loose ball bouncing around in front of goalie Janelle Horsley. With a quick flick, it was past Horsley for a 2-0 lead.
Five minutes later, Libby Cannon blasted a ball that hit Horsley's pad. Gardner was right there to knock in the rebound -- the Severna Park players call it "garbage," as in cleaning up after a miss -- to make the score 3-0. The Falcons went on to a 6-0 triumph, raising their almost-unimaginable goal total this season to 90 in 14 games. The defense has given up just two goals.
"I try to stay out wide and then cut in [toward the goal], to cut the defense off," said Gardner, who also has five assists this season. "A lot of times, [opponents will] say, 'Mark Number 12!' and I'm just trying to cut around them the whole time. . . . I'm looking for the cross, so when I see my teammates coming down the right side I know they're getting ready to cross it in."
Perhaps it's just pure talent -- Gardner has been playing field hockey since the fourth grade and her athletic prowess has also earned her a starting spot on Severna Park's lacrosse team -- but it could be a bit of pedigree, too. Gardner's mom, Chrissy, played field hockey for Severna Park in the early 1980s and wore the same Number 12 on her jersey.
Though her ascent as the leading scorer on the Washington area's best team has been meteoric, Gardner plays down any talk of "star player."
"It really doesn't matter who puts it in," she said. "It's just all working together as a team."
Notes: Severna Park has won every county championship since the championship game was first played, in the mid-1990s. . . .
South River will be looking to avenge a 2-1 loss in last season's county championship. The Seahawks were the last team to defeat Severna Park, winning 3-2 in October 2003. . . .
Severna Park continued a long-standing tradition Monday by announcing each senior "off" the field over the P.A. system as the final minutes of the game were played. One by one, each senior came to the sideline to receive flowers and was replaced by a junior or sophomore.