HANSON, Mass. – In the playoff opener against Hingham, King Philip took time to get going and watched as the Harborwomen put them under pressure from the opening whistle. It was a learning experience for the Warriors that they need to be ready to go from kick-off and take control of matches.
It was a lesson that the Warriors put into practice on Wednesday afternoon at Whitman-Hanson’s O’Neil Field against No. 12 seed Needham. KP scored three times in the opening half hour and rolled to a 4-1 win that books its place in the Div. 1 South final for the second time in the last three seasons.
“We talked about it just before we came out that we really wanted to press them hard and put them back on their heels and make them think about defense more than their offense,” said KP coach Gary Pichel.
KP has had a target on its back essentially from the start of preseason practice, as the Warriors came in as one of the favorites in D1, and the players have managed to keep rising to the challenge.
“It has been tough to play with that target on our back,” said KP senior Makayla Griffin, “but we just take it one game at a time and focus on the game that’s coming up rather than looking in the long run.”
While KP would have the bulk of the early possession, Needham had the game’s first good look in the third minute when Samantha Scully teed up Madeline Ledbury for a shot from the edge of the box, but it sailed over the bar.
In the 13th minute, the Warriors started to convert their pressure into scoring chances. Jenna Hitchen slipped a pass into Chloe Layne, who then set up Avery Snead for a shot from 25 yards that forced a save. A minute later, Snead settled a throw-in from Paige Varvarigos, stepped inside her marker onto her right foot, and fired a shot that needed to be tipped over.
The opening goal nearly happed in the 19th minute when Snead headed down a Griffin corner and then knocked the rebound through the box, but Needham defender Maylin Carr cleared off the line just in front of Hitchen.
A minute later, it was 1-0. A ball out of defense from Varvarigos found the feet of Snead, who deftly flicked it into the path of Layne behind the Needham defense. The Rockets nearly got back into position but could only get a piece of the shot that slipped inside the post.
Once in front, the Warriors stepped on the gas with a pair of goals only a minute apart. Layne played provider for the first, finding a way through a double team to get off a cross from the left that found Snead for unmarked flicked header in the six-yard-box. The second came off a Griffin corner, as Snead met it at the back post with an unstoppable header that made it 3-0.
“We just came in on fire,” Snead explained. “Getting the early goals just allows everyone to relax because everyone is so stressed out in the beginning. Getting the early goals just calms us.”
She added, “[Chloe and I] just found a lot of space in the middle and we just kept trying to check to the ball and play through balls to each other. Once we got the first one, then we just got on a roll.”
Needham didn’t go quietly. In the 32nd minute, Ledbury had a free kick from 30 yards come back off the bar and it was Scully who reacted first to force the rebound over the line. That spurred the underdogs into their best spell of the match, closing the half as the team on the front foot.
“I told them that we weren’t making many changes, I just wanted the pressure to remain the same,” Pichel said about his halftime message. “High pressure, quick on the ball, force them to make mistakes, and then capitalize on those mistakes, and you pretty much saw that. They were all over them.”
The Warriors set out in the second half to grab the momentum back. Makenzie Shandley played Layne down the left channel, but her chip over the onrushing keeper was tipped wide of the post. Six minutes later, Snead was able to slip in Shandley but pressure from the Needham defender forced the shot wide.
KP kept piling up the chances to extend the lead. Olivia Berry stepped forward from defense and delivered a pass out to the left to Hitchen, who then crossed into the middle for Layne but the last defender was able to clear. Another Griffin set piece almost picked out Snead only for the keeper to come out, challenge, and knock it away.
The defensive unit for KP, which included Griffin and Berry in the middle, Varvarigos on the left, and freshman Grace Lawler starting on the right but man-marking Needham’s Caroline Hood, stood out again. Griffin explained, “I think we’re really good at communication and knowing where everyone is going to be at all times and just talking to each other.”
In the 59th minute, Layne had a shot on the turn that had the keeper stranded but slid over the bar. Just a minute later, Needham had its best chance of the half when Ledbury got on the end of a looped cross but her shot off the bounce went wide, with KP goalie Taylor Butler scrambling across the net.
The game stayed 3-1 until the closing seconds. Under pressure, the Needham keeper spilled a cross from the left and Kiera Lindmark was able to push the rebound across the line on the third try.
Pichel said, “That’s been our trademark all season is that hustle and the hard work they put into it. Having the skill level that they have and the hard work ethic that they have is a great combo.”
King Philip (21-0) will try to secure its second South title in three years when it takes on No. 2 seed Bishop Feehan on Saturday at noon at Hingham High.