The only goal of the game arrived with eight minutes before the break, as sophomore Riley Fitzpatrick showed a deft touch to tap in Rachel Hogan’s cross on the edge of the six-yard-box and lift Franklin to a 1-0 victory over rival Mansfield.
“She’s awfully good athletically,” Franklin coach Tom Geysen said of Fitzpatrick. “She played far more aggressively than she has at any other point in the season and that makes a big difference. If you can put pressure up front on their backs, somebody’s going to make a mistake.”
Most of the game was played in the middle of the pitch, as the two teams did a good job of cancelling each other out and limiting the ability for either to get into the final third. When the teams did get the ball forward, both defenses stood tall to clear their lines and keep both goalies largely untroubled.
“Neither team,” said Mansfield coach Kevin Smith about the lack of clear scoring chances. He did note that the overall play had improved from the teams’ first meeting, adding, “We were both chatting about how we’ve been developing and both teams were passing, moving. The soccer is much better and both teams have grown.”
It took 18 minutes for the first shot in anger. A clearance by Franklin left back Anna Balkus popped out to Katie Miller and the sophomore had a go from 20 yards that was held by Breanna Atwood. A couple minutes later, Tarynn Smith had another chance for Mansfield, but freshman defender Norah Anderson forced the forward wide and made it an easier stop for Atwood.
Franklin needed half an hour to register its first shot on goal. It just happened to also find the back of the net.
Hogan battled to win the ball back on the right side of the Mansfield penalty area and she needed only a sliver of space to fire a cross to the edge of the six. Fitzpatrick made a late run towards the back post, cut across her marker, and side-footed a shot past Mansfield keeper Olivia Salisbury.
Fitzpatrick created Franklin’s other scoring opportunity of the first half when she won the ball in midfield and got it forward to senior Carly Alston. She cut inside on her right foot and fired a shot that was straight at the keeper.
Things opened up slightly at the start of the second half, as the Hornets created a scoring chance just a minute after the break. Smith played Avery Hawthorne down the left channel but her shot to the near post was grabbed by Atwood.
Eleven minutes later, Hawthorne hustled to pressure Franklin defender Sabrina Addi, blocking a clearance and getting free in the box only for Balkus to come flying across and block the goal-bound shot.
“We’ve been having that problem all season,” said Geysen. “We get a minimum number of shots. You have to score goals and we don’t. We have to play good defense and keep working our butts off to stay in the game.”
He added, “We need to be able to pressure the ball and get to it quickly. Not having Stella [Regan] (who is out with a broken leg) in the middle is a real kick in the butt because she’s so good moving the ball.”
With six minutes remaining in the game, Maria Sevastos had a free kick right on the edge of the box. The Franklin wall struggled to get itself set and gave Sevastos a look at the corner, but the shot skidded just wide.
The Hornets finished with a flurry, looking for an important equalizer that would get them one point closer to a playoff spot, but the Panthers held out and nearly doubled the lead when St. Marie couldn’t get full purchase on a volley off an Alston cross.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Smith about Mansfield’s chances of getting into the postseason. “We needed that [challenge]. We’re getting there. I love working with these kids, they’re great.”