MANSFIELD, Mass. – While it is only about a third of the way through the league campaign, Monday night’s meeting between unbeaten Mansfield and Franklin at Alumni Field was an opportunity for one of the Kelley-Rex’s perennial powers to grab a slim advantage at the top of the table.
It was a opportunity that the defending division champion Hornets would not pass up. Mansfield dominated large portions of the game, created the majority of the few scoring chances that either team managed, and came away with a 3-0 victory that puts it one game up on the Panthers and King Philip.
“We played very well,” said Mansfield coach Kevin Smith after the game. “It’s good to play like that against a really quality opponent.”
As expected from a meeting between these two programs, the game was combative and fast-paced, but neither team was able to find space for a shot against two well-organized defensive units (the top two defensive teams in the league).
The game changed in the 14th minute when senior Taylor Smith played a long ball out of the back that bounced past the Franklin center backs and into the path of Kerina Geminiani. The junior beat Franklin keeper Cat Robbins to the ball and touched it past her into the open net.
“There’s so much pressure on the defense,” said Franklin coach Tom Geysen, “and eventually someone is going to make a mistake and something bad is going to happen. Even if it’s not your fault, something is going to go wrong with all that pressure in the back.”
The first half was limited in offensive chances for either team. Stephanie Kemp had a shot easily saved by Robbins in the 25th minute, but it was one of only two saves that the keeper was forced into in the game. Meanwhile the Mansfield defense bottled up Franklin midfielder Molly Duncan and held the Panthers without an attempt on goal in the opening 40 minutes.
“We’re getting there,” said Smith about the defense, including Erin Daniel and Mikaela Maughn on the outside and Emily Vigeant and Taylor Smith in the middle. “There’s still a couple breakdowns here or there, lack of concentration, but we’re getting there.”
The defense also popped up with a goal for the Hornets. In the 38th minute, Vigeant lined up a 35-yard free kick. Her effort took a deflection off the end of the Panthers wall and bounced past the dive of Robbins for a 2-0 lead at half.
Smith admitted that goal was important for the Hornets heading into the break. He said, “It would’ve been weird to go in with that much possession, but again give Franklin credit. They really limited us, we didn’t have a lot of shots in the first half, and that’s a credit to their defense.”
Franklin made a change of system at halftime to try and give more of a challenge in the midfield. It seemed to work, as the Panthers got their first shot two minutes after the break when freshman Erin Quaile had her shot saved by Lauren Whitman.
Four minutes later, the Panthers nearly got back into the game. Jess Kroushl stole the ball in the midfield and showed off the speed that has made her a track standout to create a chance on the break. Her first effort was blocked and Duncan’s follow-up effort was also blocked by the retreating Mansfield defense.
“When they changed back to four in the middle,” Smith explained, “they overran us a little in the midfield and we had to make some adjustments and find the length in the corners. Once we did that, we could expand them and find space in the middle.”
With seven minutes left to play, the Hornets wrapped up the points. Smith played a long free kick into Allee Bezeau in the box and the senior forward flicked the ball across goal to the back post. Bryn Anderson ran onto it and calmly finished with one touch.
Kroushl gave the Panthers one more chance to ruin Mansfield’s clean sheet but her breakaway with two minutes remaining was stymied by a sliding Whitman, who managed to get a toe on the ball.
“They continued to fight hard,” Geysen said, “but we obviously need to make some changes because we didn’t generate much offense at all. We need to find ways to create some offense to take the pressure off the defense.”
Smith was happy to get the lead in the division, however slim it may be.
“Any kind of cushion gives you a little bit of breathing room,” he said, “but this league is so good…I think out of our last 10 games, seven are against above .500 teams. We might as well start the state tournament now, it’s that kind of quality.”
Mansfield (6-0) will get another top of the table test on Thursday when it plays host to second place King Philip. Franklin (5-1-1) will also be back in action on Thursday when the Panthers host Attleboro.