FRANKLIN, Mass. – As it had for almost all of Thursday night’s Div. 1 state championship game at a packed Pisini Stadium, the Franklin defense came through with another stop when it needed it most, forcing a turnover in a tie game with the clock racing to the final horn. Overtime seemed inevitable.
The Panthers tried to clear from behind the cage, but a slip in the pouring rain and a loose ball in front of an empty goal proved decisive. It was a moment that seemed to happen in slow motion.
Westwood sophomore Ava Connaughton scooped the ground ball and, while falling, found the back of the open goal with just 12.2 seconds on the clock. The Wolverines won the ensuing draw to secure a 6-5 victory and their ninth state championship. Franklin went toe-to-toe with the most successful program in state history, but came up just short in its first state title game appearance.
“I’m so proud of this group,” said Franklin coach Kristin Igoe Guarino. “We’ve been in that situation before and for them to battle back against a really, really good Westwood team was amazing. I thought our ‘D’ was amazing, Brigid, they just made one more play than us on the offensive end. It happens, but I’m really proud of the girls, they played amazing.”
In the opening minutes of the game, it didn’t look like a dramatic finish would be in the cards. Franklin looked nervous, making uncharacteristic turnovers and being tentative in front of goal. Kaitlyn Carney had the first chance of the game from the opening draw, but was denied on a dodge from the left side by Westwood goalie Anya Holland.
The Wolverines started strongly and took a quick 2-0 lead inside the opening 2-1/2 minutes. Ashley Mackin, Westwood’s star and a Johns Hopkins-commit, played provider, feeding first Lindsey Diomede and then Connaughton for goals.
Franklin’s defense, led by Sydney Hawkins, Anna Grasso, and Ali Socci, was soaking up endless pressure in the first, as the Wolverines seemed to have the ball for the vast majority of the opening quarter. The Panthers also got a big boost from junior goalie Brigid Earley (10 saves), who made a big kick save to deny a point-blank chance and then took one off the mask from Kella McGrail.
“This is her first year playing goalie and look where she brought us,” Igoe Guarino said of Earley, who started as a freshman attacker on JV and volunteered to step in between the posts to fill a need this season. “She’s incredible and she made some huge saves on some Div. I shooters and kept us in the game. I’m really proud of her. She learned quick and she led us to the state finals.”
Three minutes into the second, Westwood added a third and looked like it might be able to break the game open. Mackin was again the provider, finding Kate Deehan on the cut through the middle. After Earley made another big stop to deny Lillian Hancock after a free run through the heart of the defense, Mackin got her first of the night on a sidearm snipe.
Franklin needed to find something positive on the offensive side of the ball. After several missed opportunities from eight meters, Kate O’Rourke found a crucial breakthrough on a free position with 4:43 left in the half. The Panthers went into the break down 4-1, but still hanging in and still with a shot at the title.
The hosts picked up a big early goal in the third to build momentum. Stella Regan picked out Carney cutting through the middle and her lefty finish found the top corner.
Mackin got her fourth assist of the night, this time setting up Jane Gaffney in front to restore the three-goal lead, but the Panthers looked like they had more life than the opening half.
Earley helped out again, getting enough of a Mackin rip from distance to send the ball just over the bar. Three minutes later, Regan was able to drive into the middle from the right side and finish over the top of Holland to make it 5-3.
With the clock winding down in the third, Earley got a piece of yet another shot, which caromed out to Kenzie Baker. She snagged the ground ball, got it to Regan, who moved it on to Carney at midfield. The sophomore instantly attacked, splitting a pair of defenders, racing 50 yards, and then firing into the top far corner with just 17.4 to go.
It was a stunning goal at the perfect moment to send the Panthers into the fourth with all the momentum and ramp up the energy in the crowd. It was also the moment that the heavens opened and it started pouring.
Four minutes into the fourth quarter, the comeback was complete. Carney played provider this time, driving towards the cage from the right side and seeing Jamie Tanner at the back post. Tanner was able to make a nice catch in traffic, spun, and finished over Holland to tie the game at 5-5.
Westwood had its chances to go back in front, but Earley continued to play at another level. Mackin fed Deehan in front but Earley stayed tall to make the stop, then she denied Diomede from close range, and took one off the midriff after Mackin got open in the middle. Baker had the best chance down the stretch for Franklin, but Holland (four saves) came up with a big stop.
In the end, it took an unlucky bounce to separate the two teams. Franklin (18-1), which is only seven years removed from its first sectional title, showed just how far it has come as a program. The Panthers wanted to show that a title game appearance was no fluke and that they were on the same level as the best in the state.
“I’m just so proud for all the alumni who set the culture standards before and brought us inch-by-inch,” said Igoe Guarino. “We have a great youth program, the girls work incredibly hard not just in season but out of season, and I think they just left a legacy no matter the outcome of this game.
“For years to come, this is the standard for Franklin lacrosse,” she continued. “We lost to the best in the state by one, we’ll be back.”
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