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Girls' soccer's season ends in double-overtime heartbreaker

by Kristian Lundberg
If any conclusion can be drawn from girls’ soccer’s heartbreaking double-overtime loss to Chelmsford, it’s that the soccer gods have a cruel sense of humor.
Even coach James Hamblin was stunned following Wednesday’s match.
“I don’t think words can describe it,” he said. “From their perspective, you can’t even write this story.”
In their second-round tournament match against 15th-seeded Chelmsford, the Tigers, seeded 7th in their section, were by far the better team, but a couple of bad bounces turned a comfortable 3-1 halftime lead to a 3-3 seat-squirmer, and, by the time the Tigers had failed to convert on any of their overtime chances, the ending was almost inevitable.
With only one second left in double overtime, Chelmsford senior Abby Johnson collected the ball and launched a beautiful strike towards the upper left corner. Sophomore Maddie Bledsoe, who had anchored the team in net all season, barely moved, but she had no chance to stop the shot anyway. Johnson drilled the ball into the back of the net, clearing out the Lions’ bench as they mobbed her for the shocking buzzer-beater.
“I got a good touch on the ball, so I just tried to hit it,” she said.
Meanwhile, on the Tigers’ end of the field, shock and tears replaced the excited optimism of the first half. A season that once held so much promise, with the Tigers remaining undefeated in their first nine games, ended abruptly in heartbreaking fashion.
“The girls gave it their all, but at the end of the day, we were hurt by not being able to defend free kicks,” Hamblin said. “Unfortunately, on two set plays we didn’t clear our lines.”
Although much of the fireworks on offense arrived late in the second half, the tone for a high-scoring battle was set in the game’s first few minutes.
After the Tigers fell behind early on a goal from Chelmsford freshman Michelle Materna, sophomore Shannon Fitzgerald answered in the seventh minute, in off a feed from senior Holly Szafran, to knot the match at 1-1.
The raucous crowd of predominantly students and teachers, who let out their classes early to attend the match swelled as the first half progressed and so did the Tigers’ dominance over possession. Despite the early goal, the Tigers stifled any offensive threat from Chelmsford, and they pinned the Lions deep in their defensive third. With 17 minutes left in the half, Szafran ran down a ball floated over the top and coolly picked out the lower left corner, finishing past the onrushing keeper to put her side ahead.
Eleven minutes later, the Tigers extended their advantage to 3-1 in a brilliant display of clinical passing. Fitzgerald, controlling the ball on the left wing, threatened a cross far post but instead cut it back for freshman Anna Nesgos. Nesgos calmly collected and fired a left-footed shot on frame. The Lions’ keeper came up with a nice save, but Szafran, cleverly staying onsides, was in perfect position to put away the rebound.
But none of that makes a difference in the tournament bracket.
Chelmsford responded quickly in the second half, scoring off a free kick from 25 yards out at 35:50. Bledsoe came out to collect the cross, but junior Jill Emerson emerged from the crowd to nod it home, cutting the Tigers’ lead to one.
As the clock ticked down under 10 minutes left,  the Tigers dropped two midfielders behind the ball—senior Katie Regan, a captain with seniors Sarah Perlo and Lauren Smith, and junior Jordyn Matthews—in an attempt to grind out the victory.
However, with only six minutes left, the Lions earned another free kick, this one 23 yards out near the right sideline. After Chelmsford called a timeout to devise a play, Materna struck the direct kick low and at the net. Bledsoe rushed out but only could deflect the ball to the top of the box, where Emerson, unmarked in the Tigers’ rush to clear the ball, finished into the open net to equalize, silencing the crowd at Dickinson Stadium and sending the match into overtime.
“First of all, it wasn’t a free kick. The referee got it wrong,” Hamblin said. “We didn’t clear it, and when our goalie made the save on the floor, we weren’t prepared to defend the rebound.”
The Tigers had one last chance in regulation with only a couple of minutes left, but they wasted a golden opportunity when once again, Fitzgerald beat her defender and sent in a cross from the left wing. The goalkeeper slapped the ball straight to junior Madison Nadeau, but her volley sailed over the open net.
Both overtime periods were marked with missed opportunities for the Tigers. At the end of the first overtime, Fitzgerald ran down a through ball from Szafran, but she blasted her shot over the crossbar.
Five minutes into double overtime, Szafran capped a daring run through the midfield by firing a 25-yard laser straight into the keeper’s arms, and the players and fans, hoping for Szafran to add another memory to her outstanding season, collectively exhaled.
But, just as both teams were mentally preparing for what was sure to be a tension-packed penalty shootout, Johnson struck with one second left to complete the dramatic upset.
“To come back against a perennial power is a testament to the character of my girls,” said Chelmsford coach Anne Mariano. “They didn’t want their season to end.”
Meanwhile, barely 20 yards away from the Lions’ exuberant celebration, Hamblin struggled to describe how his team managed to lose this game.
“Chelmsford worked really hard, and they made a great comeback,” he said.
“The season was a great success, and the seniors were great this year. When I first got the job, I figured it was a three year plan, so going from two to nine to 14 wins shows it’s progressively getting better.”
Hamblin pointed out that the team’s future was still bright, due to their depth and young talent.
“I think the future’s going to be very exciting,” he said. “We’re a very young team with players that will grow into starters next year.”
Among those bright spots on display were Bledsoe, Nesgos, Fitzgerald and sophomore Amelia Williams, who had a strong game in the midfield. Matthews and Nadeau, starters this season, look to provide leadership for next year’s squad.
Still, as the Tigers walked off the field for the last time this season, Hamblin said, “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

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