By Josh Perry, Managing Editor
MANSFIELD, Mass. – The Panthers had dominated from the beginning of the game, forcing Mansfield to defend deep and putting consistent pressure on the Hornets’ back line. Then, with a minute remaining, Mansfield broke forward on a rare attack on the Franklin net.
Franklin goalie Sam Jones made two kick saves, but in the mass of white and blue jerseys in the crease she was forced to cover up the ball to prevent a goal. The result was a penalty stroke with just 40 seconds left to play.
Mansfield junior Caitlin Whitman stepped up to the spot. The Hornets had been practicing and Whitman put the effort to good use, dispatching a shot into the bottom corner and past the outstretched leg of Jones.
The goal gave Mansfield a 1-0 win on Wednesday afternoon at a rainy and cold Alumni Field, decided the season series between the rivals, and advanced the Hornets to the Div. 1 South final.
“We always have a plan when we step up to the line,” said Whitman, who admitted that she had put in a lot of time practicing penalty strokes in the lead up to the game.
“I was nervous but working through the nerves is part of what we practice every day. I was trying to put the nerves aside and try to sink it.”
The Panthers jumped onto the front foot right from the opening whistle. The midfield, led by Mackenzie Pleshaw, Diana Griffin, Dana Lewandowski and particularly senior Taylor Reutlinger, blocked off every Mansfield attack and kept the ball in the Hornets defensive third.
“They’re like an onion – you peel one layer and there’s another layer and another layer,” said Mansfield coach Theresa Nyhan. She joked, “Sometimes I feel like they’re playing with 13 or 14 on the field.”
Despite the pressure that Franklin was exerting, Hornets goalie Brenna Prior was largely untroubled in the opening half. The Mansfield defense kept Franklin at bay. Ann Maher, Amalia Todesco, and Jennifer McCabe forced everything to the outside and limited Franklin to only a couple of shots that got through to Prior.
“They dominated but didn’t have a ton of shots,” explained Nyhan. “It was a lot of midfield play and even three-quarter play; they had it in that section.”
“When we got the chance to open up the field, we had some chances.”
Pleshaw had the ball in the net for Franklin in the 17th minute but it was from outside the arc and did not count. Ruetlinger had a shot kicked aside by Prior and it started a break with Maher racing into the counterattack. A steal by Whitman forced Jones into a save with just two minutes before the break.
“Early in the first half, we had more chances but nobody was going to the ball and everyone was standing there watching,” said Franklin coach Lisa Cropper. “My best attackers are freshmen and…sometimes it’s brilliant and sometimes it’s where are you? When you don’t take care of your chances then you give the other team the chance.”
Whitman had an early chance in the second half for Mansfield that was kicked aside by Jones and then Franklin went back on the attack. The Panthers had a second goal disallowed for a violation in the crease in the 34th minute and in the 42nd minute freshman Annie Walsh had a shot saved by Prior.
“I had one timeout but I wish I had four. I wanted to borrow some from Coach Redding, but I know he uses his all up,” Nyhan joked. “I was happy they used their timeout because…clearly we were back on our heels.”
Walsh had another chance in the 48th minute off a corner but no one could redirect her pass through the crease and the chance was gone. Six minutes later, Walsh again saw a shot find the side of the net not the back of it.
“Everyone says defense wins championships, but you don’t win if you don’t score,” said Cropper.
The Franklin midfield had been mostly impenetrable but as the clock wound down under a minute and the Panthers bench started making plans for overtime, the Hornets broke quickly. Julia Todesco found Caroline Maher with open field to run into for the first time all game and Mansfield turned it into a chance.
Jones made several big stops but the play developed into a scrum in front of goal with both teams trying their best to get a stick on the ball. In the end, Jones was forced to cover up and the penalty stroke was awarded.
Cropper had no complaints about the decisive call. She said, “The stroke was the correct call. We kind of broke down in the last minute and Sam had no choice but to cover it and the kid made a nice stroke.”
She added, “Their two best players really didn’t do a whole lot until right down there…we tried to have someone on them and we did it for the most part but you have to do it for 60 minutes not 59:30.”
Nyhan added “It’s unfortunate that it needs to be the game decider, but also you can’t bury the ball.”
The victory sends Mansfield to the Div. 1 South final at the expense of their rivals.
Whitman gushed, “They’re our biggest competitors in the regular season, so playing them in the tournament is a huge deal and we were all nervous, but luckily we could let that go and play our game.”
“We haven’t been here in so long. It just means so much.”
Mansfield will face perennial power Walpole on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Oliver Ames.
Josh Perry can be contacted at JoshPerry@hockomocksports.com and followed on Twitter at @Josh_Perry10.