FRANKLIN, Mass. – It certainly felt like the playoffs at Beaver St. Field on Saturday afternoon, and not just because of the cold. There was a fiery atmosphere at Franklin’s postseason opener against Braintree and the intensity, physicality, and aggression of the action on the field surpassed anything that the Panthers had faced in the regular season.
It took until the second half, but Franklin came to grips with that physicality and, thanks to a pair of goals within a minute of each other and a last minute goal line clearance, the Panthers were able to rally from a goal down to secure a thrilling 3-2 victory.
“That’s the most physical game we’ve had all year,” said a relieved Franklin coach Michelle Hess after the final whistle.
The Wamps came storming out of the gates and took control from the opening whistle, putting the Panthers back on their heels with a fast-paced transition game and a direct style. Franklin goalie Neilee Hess was forced into a save inside the first two minutes and the Panthers found themselves pinned back in the defensive half.
Braintree nearly scored in the third minute after a massive scramble in the crease, but the officials waved off a goal due to an infringement. Another cross came in seconds later but skipped right through the crease. In the fifth minute, the pressure paid off as the Wamps scored from a corner, Delia Lee getting the final touch to a cross.
Despite being the home team and the higher seed, Franklin looked nervous in the opening minutes and took a while to settle down. That was helped in the 13th minute by winning a corner, which was played out to Amanda Lewandowski, who set up a shot for Molly Collins. Olivia Rondeau was stationed at the post and was able to turn the shot in to make it 1-1.
The physicality was non-stop and freshman Kaitlyn Carney got tangled up with Lee in the midfield and was given a card for a trip. The Wamps took advantage of the extra player and regained the lead before the break with Lee getting the finishing touch from in close, flicking the shot past Hess (seven saves).
It could have been worse for the Panthers shortly after halftime when Allyson DeCoste and then Lee were denied at point-blank range by Hess in the Franklin goal.
Instead of being two behind, Franklin stayed within striking distance and started to find seams in the visitors’ back line. Lewandowski made a long run from inside her own half, but had a shot from outside the circle skid just wide of the post. Two minutes later, Rondeau found space on the right but back-to-back crosses were cut out by the Braintree defense.
“We noticed that they were trapping us on the left, pressuring us to go to the lefthand side of the field,” Hess explained. “We talked at halftime that since they’re doing that to us let’s switch the field more and start playing on the right and let’s using the middle a little bit. We also said they only have one girl back so let’s use some long balls since we have speed and at least get it into their half of the field.”
Finally, in the 49th minute, Franklin found itself level again, and again it was a well-executed corner that led to the goal. The ball was passed from up top to the end line and then sent across the crease, which led to a scrum on the goal line. Senior defender Maeve Ledwith was in the right place to get the telling touch.
“It picked up our momentum,” said Hess. “It recharged them. We work really hard on our corners, so it was great to see them execute and hit it at the right time.”
Before the teams had a chance to process that the game was tied, the Panthers were in front. A quick transition caught out the Braintree defenders and Stephanie Bell was able to redirect a shot up over the goalie’s blocker to make it 3-2.
Emotions were being frayed on both sides as the game’s intensity ratcheted up another notch for the final 10 minutes. The Wamps had a goal ruled out when a shot from beyond the circle went through a crowd of bodies untouched. Rondeau then set up Bell for a big chance but the shot went just wide.
With three minutes left in the game, Braintree had one final chance. DeCoste, who was mostly well-marshaled by Kate O’Rourke, got free and sent a shot towards the back post. Hess had been forced to cover the near post. so the goal was gaping but Collins hustled back to cover and swept the shot off the line.
At the final whistle, the Franklin players swarmed their goalie and celebrated a win that will get them ready for the challenges yet to come in the playoffs.
Hess noted, “Usually in the tournament you’re going to face a Walpole, who’s also another physical, aggressive team, or Somerset-Berkley, who has the boys, so yeah I definitely think this momentum and this excitement is going to let us continue to ride the wave and keep going.”
Franklin (15-2-2) will travel to No. 4 seed Westwood on Monday afternoon for the D1 South quarterfinal.