MANSFIELD, Mass. – Sometimes everything just clicks on the pitch. The game plan, the formation, the passes, the runs, the marking, the energy, everything comes together over 80 minutes and makes it hard for the opposition to keep pace.
In Wednesday night’s Kelley-Rex title showdown at Alumni Field, Franklin had one of those rare nights. The Panthers hardly put a foot wrong from the opening whistle, scored twice in the opening 18 minutes, and walked away with a 3-1 victory over Mansfield.
“That was the best 80 minutes of soccer we’ve played all season,” said Franklin coach Jodi Klein. “That is what we’ve been working for all season long. We knew how we needed to play to beat this team and they did it.”
Franklin’s win ended a run of four straight defeats to the Hornets, including a 1-0 loss almost exactly a month ago, opened up a four-point gap on Mansfield in the title race, and kept Franklin two points in front of King Philip with two matches to play. It was the first time in the last seven meetings that either team scored more than one goal.
“They played great,” Mansfield coach Kevin Smith admitted. “They were fast, they were quicker than us to the ball, they connected their passes, and they came out in the first 20 minutes and scored the two goals and then we started settling in a little bit. On the whole, the better team won tonight.”
It was mostly one-way traffic in the opening half. Franklin needed only two minutes to fashion a good chance, as freshman Kelly O’Connor got forward down the left wing and crossed to an unmarked Anya Zub on the edge of the six-yard-box. The Panthers’ top scorer headed the chance wide.
Chances kept coming. In the eighth minute, an out-swinging corner was partially cleared to Bridget Leo, who hit a perfect half-volley from 20 yards only to have Mansfield keeper Olivia Salisbury made a full-stretch save to prevent the opening goal. It turned out to be only a momentary reprieve. On the ensuing corner from Izzy Arnold, Salisbury could only knock it down and Zub made no mistake from close range.
The lead was doubled in the 18th minute. Another run down the left by O’Connor opened up the Mansfield defense. Her line drive cross into the box missed Zub’s run but Riley Fitzpatrick cut in from the right wing and was able to direct the cross past the dive of Salisbury.
Franklin kept coming. The midfield trio of Stella Regan, Chloe Barca, and Leo were passing their way past the Hornets and forcing a lot of running and tackling out of holding midfielders Bridget Hanley and Katie Miller. While there were impressive performances all over the pitch, it was O’Connor that stood out in the first half. Every time the freshman touched the ball, the Panthers created a chance.
Another O’Connor cross was palmed out of the box but right to Regan, who teed up Leo for a shot from distance that went well over. A minute later, O’Connor was running at the back line again, dancing past a pair of defenders before firing a shot into the side netting.
At the half-hour mark, O’Connor and Regan played a nice one-two with Regan slipping the winger in behind the defense. O’Connor got all the way to the end line and fired a cross off Salisbury that Hanley had to be alert to clear.
“She’s a monster,” Klein said about O’Connor. “She doesn’t have a ton of points this season, but she creates so much offense. She just creates chances and excitement and energy. She doesn’t stop and I’m so excited to see what she does in the next few years.”
Right before halftime, Leo had one more good look from distance. She picked the pocket of a Mansfield player and ran to the edge of the box before forcing Salisbury into another good save down low to her right.
The Panthers were good value for the two-goal advantage. Mansfield had created little of note in the attack, as the center back pairing of Norah Anderson and Maddie Horton were repelling everything that came their way.
Olivia Homsi had the first shot on target for Mansfield in the second half, cutting in from the left and putting a shot into the hands of Rachel Welch. A long pass from Anderson sent O’Connor off on a run. She split a pair of defenders but the shot was comfortably saved by Salisbury.
Ten minutes after the break, Franklin added a contentious third. O’Connor was bundled over on the far edge of the box and, much to the frustration of the Mansfield defenders, the official on the opposite side pointed to the spot. Regan stepped up and fired a shot over Salisbury, who had guessed right.
The third goal seemed to spark Mansfield into life. Tarynn Smith set up Carly Devine for a shot from the edge of the box that Welch got down well to hold. Smith had a shot from 18 yards that again forced a save out of the keeper. Homsi and Devine both thought they had gotten behind the defense only to have the official rule them offsides. Gabby Smith had a long free kick that she put on target but Welch made a good catch.
Klein explained, “We haven’t really needed to manage a lead in such a high-intensity game. We’re just really starting to be confident and trust each other and know that we can do that against a team with that kind of speed. You can do it against teams that aren’t putting any pressure on you but when you’ve got Mansfield girls running down your back it’s different.”
Franklin wasn’t finished. A corner from Arnold went all the way across the box and out to her fellow fullback Jackie O’Neil, who played it back in. Salisbury bravely got down at the far post to smother with O’Connor waiting to pounce. In the 71st minute, Salisbury denied Fitzpatrick a brace after Zub’s steal and cross.
With five minutes to play, Mansfield got on the board from the spot after another contentious call. Miller made no mistake from the spot, firing into the bottom corner past the dive of Welch.
“It was a great build up and experience of what tournament is going to be like, playing every other day against a top-level team,” Smith said about the challenge of facing OA, KP, and Franklin in the past week. “It was great for us. What else can you ask for than playing top teams to get you ready?”
Franklin (11-1-2) can clinch at least a share of its second straight league title if it beats Milford on Monday. Mansfield (10-4) will look to bolster its tournament positioning when it hosts Taunton.