FRANKLIN, Mass. – With its second straight Kelley-Rex division title already in-hand, the Franklin field hockey team had their sights set on proving they were the best team in the league through the Hockomock Cup.
But just before the final week of the regular season, the Panthers’ season came to an abrupt halt when the high school went completely remote, forcing a two-week hiatus for athletics.
Not only did that mean Franklin’s final two games were canceled, it looked like the Panthers wouldn’t be able to compete in the league’s postseason tournament.
But the Franklin school committee and administrators from FHS came together, organized COVID testing for varsity athletes, and — after all the tests came back negative — athletics was back on.
The Panthers took advantage of their so-called second chance, capping their postseason run with a 1-0 win over King Philip in the Hockomock Cup final on their home turf field at Beaver Street.
“The fact that we got our season back was huge,” said Franklin coach Michelle Hess. “It would have been super disappointing because this is probably one of the best teams I’ve had in years. It would have crushed me and the rest of the team if we weren’t able to continue so we are very grateful we were able to play tonight.
“I’ve actually coached a lot of this group since they were in the rec program. So to celebrate this and have them play the way they did tonight just makes me super proud as a coach.”
The only separation between the top two teams in the Kelley-Rex division came off the stick of Franklin senior Amanda Lewandowski, finishing off a pass from classmate Sara Carney with just seconds left in the third quarter.
And when the Warriors threatened to equalize, Franklin senior goalie Neilee Hess came charging off her line to deny a partial breakaway chance from KP’s Grace Crocker midway through the fourth quarter to help secure the one-goal win.
“We made one mistake on defense,” said King Philip head coach Lisa Cropper. “We were trying to force everything to our right, their left, which is our strong side. The one time we didn’t, they got it in and deflected it in. But we had our chances, we had that breakaway in the fourth and couldn’t quite slip it past her, Neilee came up big on that one. We marked [Lewandowski] and we marked [Kaitlyn Carney] and we were trying to force to our strong side to keep them away from their strong side. Any time anyone was winding up for a shot, we had to have a stick on it and we did. But we just had one mistake, we didn’t quite force them [the way we wanted].
“I was hoping we could get to overtime. I felt like we had the advantage going into overtime or a shootout but we didn’t get that far so congratulations to [Franklin].”
After it a scoreless first half, it looked like the teams would head to the final 15 minutes without a goal but the Panthers finally broke through with 20.9 seconds to go. After a restart from the 25-yard line, Carney tossed a pass into the mix in front of goal and Lewandowski finished for a 1-0 lead.
The Panthers had a good chance to double the lead in the 51st minute as sophomore Kaitlyn Carney intercepted a pass with the Warriors pushing numbers forward. Carney sprinted into the attacking half but KP’s last defender Ally Beltramini was able to break up the play, and then came in and cleared the ball before Lewandowski could latch onto it.
That defensive stop led the KP’s best chance to level the match as Isabelle Crocker raced onto a loose ball before firing a pass ahead for her sister Grace, who used her speed to get by the defense. With pressure from Franklin defender Molly Collins, Crocker unleashed a shot as Hess came charging out to close down the angle. Hess made the stop with the pad and Isabelle Crocker’s rebound attempt was just wide of the post.
“I think that just showcased her skills and how hard she’s worked as a goalie,” Michelle Hess said of her daughter Neilee. “She’s very lucky this season to have the players in front of her that she did. So she didn’t face as many shots as some of the other goalies in the league but when it was crunch time, when it was critical, Neilee stepped up and got the job done.”
Both teams opened the contest with a chance to score right away. First it was Kaitlyn Carney, weaving her way through the KP defense but her shot was denied by KP keeper Makenzie Manning (13 saves). On the other end, Abby Nixon knocked down an aerial clearance attempt but her shot from in close was turned aside.
Both defenses stole the spotlight throughout the first half, limiting the opposing offenses to few genuine scoring chances, allowing their keeper to see any shots from distance.
“If you can stop their transition…their forwards are so fast,” Hess said of the defensive gameplan. “But my fullbacks kind of matched them speed-wise so we kind of knew we were pretty safe there with them trying to get through the midfield and pushing forward.
“Their defense was very good. We talked at halftime about how we were trying to do a lot of things individually, we were trying to penetrate the defense individually. That’s not our strength, we’re much better when we play together as a team so we had to go to our passing game. We were getting into the circle and they had three girls on them right away. We tried getting it down low…and one of our strengths is using Sara Carney at the top. So we tried to get it down low to shift the defense and then get it back out to Sara, and sure enough, that’s how we scored the goal.”
Just seconds before the halftime whistle, Manning stood tall on a rocket of a shot from Kaitlyn Carney to keep things scoreless. Five minutes into the second half, Sara Carney had a big shot kicked away as well. Alongside Beltramini, Morgan Cunningham, Lily Brown, and Kelly Holmes anchored the KP defense.
It was just the third time this season that Franklin was limited to two or fewer goals; the first two times also came against KP back in week two of the regular season.
“I’m extremely proud of how they progressed and how well they played in this big game,” Cropper said. “There was a lot of adversity that everyone had to deal with and the kids did a phenomenal job. And I’m so appreciative of the ADs for their efforts to put this all together.”
Franklin field hockey finishes the season at 11-0-2 while King Philip finishes at 8-3-3.