By: Danny Buckland
Hillcroft threw down the Premiership gauntlet with an emphatic win 14-3 over Reading as the 2017-18 SEMLA season cranked into life.
The Wildcats fought hard but were left trailing in the wake of the home team’s slick offensive work and marauding defence.
Ben Stringer cashed in with six goals but the others were spread across an agile offensive effort, ably quarter-backed by Rhod Stanford who also excelled at face-off.
Hillcroft looked like they were three games into the season and their early cohesion and swarming pressure had Reading puffing with the strain.
The Croft dominated the early exchanges and Stringer got the train moving with a low shot on four minutes. Jack Crawley then hit a pipe before the ex-Sheffield Steeler got his second as Hillcroft went to work.
Liam Metolly pulled off a miraculous close-in save from Stanford but his defence was struggling to keep pace with a rapid unit full of invention exemplified by their third goal from Tom Paton, put in the clear by an angled, defence-splitting pass from Eoin Dunne.
Reading gradually settled into a solid defensive shape with good hustling work from Dom Hewitt disrupting attacks and getting the transition game going.
But every step across half-way was met with a wall of white pressure and their time on the ball was hurried and disjointed.
Stringer brought the Quarter to a 4-0 close with a bounce shot with seconds remaining.
Hillcroft came out firing in Q2, Jonny Harry hitting the post but Reading had found their feet and Rob Day and Ben Buchanan put in the hard yards to keep possession and engineer some attacking moves.
The teams exchanged Man-ups with the first penalties of the game 11 and 12 minutes into the Quarter and Day grabbed the Wildcats’ first goal at the end of their possession.
Crawley blazed two shots before Jozef Tomenga muscled his way through the defence for a 5-1 lead with Stringer making it made it 6-1 with a fizzing shot after a clear was thwarted.
Hillcroft went into half-time dominant but Reading rallied in the 3rd as Paul Chapman started to get some change out of Stanford and Zak Jordan at the re-starts which were proving an absorbing contest.
Buchanan made it 6-2 with a crisp shot after the visitors’ longest possession and then a fast break had the evergreen Paul Milner feeding Josh Wall who finished well close-in to close the gap to three.
If there were a sense that they could edge back into the game, Hillcroft put paid to that, hitting straight back with a clean Stanford face win and a quick one-two from Harry to Dunne for a textbook score.
Thom Gilbrook then spun and barreled his way from X to strike and Crawley shouldered his way round to find a lane and a power shot. Three goals in five minutes effectively ended Reading’s thin hopes of taking it to the wire.
A man-up play allowed Harry to sting one top right and Stanford put the exclamation point on his performance with a forceful run from the top to score, drawing a penalty along the way.
Reading had expended huge amounts of energy trying to stick with Hillcroft’s fluid attack and there were leaden legs in the final ten minutes but they stuck to their task well and will draw confidence from their hunger and willingness to attack when possible.
But Hillcroft’s pace was relentless. A fast break found Harry who coolly drew the cover before pinpointing a pass to Stringer in front of an empty net and he added his sixth after a well-worked move for a 14-3 scoreline.
This was a top performance from Hillcroft and the expected signal to the big two of Spencer and Hampstead. Reading will be looking for better days and to fire up their trademark fast-paced game.
“They struggled to get a touch in the first quarter but showed how dangerous they are when we faded slightly but I was pleased that we responded well,” said Hillcroft skipper, Tom Loake.
“A great performance from Ben Stringer with six goals but we spread the rest out across the team and it was pleasing to pick up a couple of goals from turnovers”.
Q SCORES: 4-0 / 6-1 / 9-3 / 14-3
Hillcroft: Ben Stringer 6, Jonny Harry 2, Jack Crawley, Eoin Dunne, Thom Gilbrook, Tom Paton, Rhod Stanford, Jozef Tomenga
Reading: Ben Buchanan, Rob Day, Josh Wall