By Josh Perry, Managing Editor
FRANKLIN, Mass. – Hana Caster was the only player to score a goal against the Franklin defense during the regular season. On Sunday afternoon at Pisini Field, Caster also became the only player to score against the Panthers in the postseason and in the process knocked Franklin out of the tournament in the Div. 1 South quarterfinal.
Caster scored just nine minutes into the game to give North Attleboro a lead that it would never relinquish. The 1-0 victory advances the Rocketeers into the semifinal and ends Franklin’s streak of sectional final appearance at three (and four of the last five).
If there were any nerves going against the league champions, North Attleboro certainly hid them well. The Rocketeers, coming off a 3-2 win against Davenport champion Oliver Ames, started well with pressure in the midfield and quick transitions to the front two of Haley Guertin and Caster.
“Franklin, I’ve always said, there’s no question they’re the best team in the league,” said North coach Glenn Pasquel, “but when we came out we thought, it’s just another game.”
He added, “The main thing is these girls focusing. When they focus, we’re on fire; they’re unstoppable.”
In the ninth minute, the pressure paid off when Guertin sprung Caster down the right channel only for the senior forward to hit a tame shot at Franklin keeper Dani Lonati. The ball was quickly heading back towards the Franklin goal and Grace Guertin flicked a header towards Caster who split the central defenders with her speed and then composed herself to chip Lonati.
“She’s a huge impact to our offense the way she’s moving the ball,” said Pasquel.
North continued to pile on the pressure and in the 15th minute, Ellie Teixeira was forced to clear a ball of the line.
Franklin had a chance in the 29th when left back Abigail Gipson crossed but barely missed the head of Molly Duncan and the toe of Meghan Doherty. In the 34th minute Alexis Stowell went on a long, weaving run only to hit a shot from the edge of the box right at North keeper Kiersten Bixby.
“They were the better team,” said Franklin coach Tom Geysen. “That [goal] was the difference but it doesn’t tell the tale of the game. We couldn’t create anything up front, nothing consistent.”
The lack of sustained attack for Franklin was putting extra pressure on the defense to step up and just four minutes after the break, North almost doubled the lead. Haley Guertin got behind the defense but with the goal at her mercy dragged a shot narrowly wide.
In the 54th minute North again came close to the back-breaking goal when a ball was played over the top to Caster and she showed off her speed to outpace Lauren Rudolph. With only Lonati to beat, Caster elected to square the ball and it was cleared.
Two minutes later, another ball was played behind the defense and bounced toward Lonati. Caster never gave up the chase and there was a terrible collision between the keeper and the forward. Caster took a blow to the head and was down for several minutes before walking off with assistance. She would not return following that very scary moment.
Pasquel said, “Hana or anyone of our players, when we see them on the ground, and when she went down and wasn’t moving that was scary, the whole team said to itself that we have to help Hana and go out and win this game.”
Franklin knew that it had to press for an equalizer and the attack started to create more chances and to push higher up the pitch. The problem for the Panthers was that every time Victoria Stowell or Emily Spath or Meghan Georges got any momentum Rachel LaBonte was there for North to sweep up and to lear the attack.
LaBonte spent her freshman season playing mostly as an attacker, but Pasquel moved her back to sweeper in the preseason. He explained, “She’s unbelievable, She reads the play instantly. I just saw it and said to myself, you know what, she’s a defender and I’m going to give her a try.”
The best chance for Franklin came in the 71st minute when Gipson stepped into a full volley off a Stowell corner but hit it right into the chest of Bixby. A yard either side and the game would have been tied.
With four minutes remaining, Geysen called timeout to rally his team. He explained, “You have to push up. Everything goes over the top and you have to go get it. They created some chances but it was too little too late.”
Pasquel told his team, “This is the time we have to get past those injuries and we have to work together. We have four minutes left and then we go on to the next step.”
The clock wound down to nothing, the final whistle sounded, and for the second time in four days, North Attleboro raced onto the pitch to celebrate a victory at the home of one of its rivals.
“It’s the heart that leads this team,” said Pasquel, “and these girls have the biggest heart. Our goal from the beginning was that we’re going to finish to the end.”
Geysen struggled to put into context all that his senior class had accomplished in four years at Franklin. From a state championship as freshmen to three straight sectional finals (in one of the most competitive brackets in the state) to four straight league titles, the seniors had a lot for which to be proud.
“That may be one of the few teams that we’ve lost at home to in four years,” he said. “I had seven [senior] starters and three coming off the bench and they all played well tonight. They each gave it their all.”
North Attleboro will face Whitman-Hanson in the Div. 1 South semifinal on Veterans Day at Marshfield High.
Josh Perry can be contacted at JoshPerry@hockomocksports.com and followed on Twitter at @Josh_Perry10.
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