NEEDHAM, Mass. -- Heading into this afternoon's much-anticipated showdown with Andover, Needham head coach Beth O'Brien stressed to her team the importance of getting on the scoreboard first.
But when you play for a coach as fiercely passionate as O'Brien, it turned out, one goal is never enough. Because the Rockets didn't just get on the board first -- they lit up the board in the first half, jetting out to a commanding halftime lead and making it hold up after staving off a late rally from the Golden Warriors, prevailing 13-9 in a matchup between two of the state's top five programs loaded with Division 1-caliber talent.
"That's something we've struggled on, coming out and scoring those first few goals, and then having the ability to maintain that throughout the game," O'Brien said. "That was a big step for us."
The Rockets (7-1) reeled off an 8-1 run in the first half to take a 10-4 lead over Andover (7-2) at the break, with junior Maddie Stenberg and sophomore Catherine Conley combining for seven of those scores. The duo got opportunities for points off free position shots, but also moved the ball around the attacking zone with efficiency, slipping through some of the state's most talented defenders with split-dodges, and using the space behind the net to create net-front presence.
Three straight scores from Conley with less than five minutes to go in the first half gave Needham all the cushion it would need in the end. First, Conley cut down the middle towards the net and put a one-timer from behind the net top shelf, with 4:04 to go. Two and a half minutes later, she scored on a free position shot; that was followed with 52 seconds remaining in the half with a wrap-around, for a 10-3 advantage.
Conley finished with four goals and an assist, while Stenberg led all scorers on the day with five goals and two assists.
"Cat had a great game today," O'Brien said. "She was one of our leading scorers last year as a freshman, and was suffering a little bit of an injury at the beginning of the season, so this is what we like to call a 'Coming Out Day'. She's been having some great games, but this is really the Catherine Conley that we know is there. She's a phenomenal player who is only going to continue to get better."
O'Connor Shines in Net: Sophomore goalie Annee O'Connor came up with eight saves in net, all of them seemingly brilliant with a large degree of difficulty. That included three saves on free position shots as well.
"Let's face it, she's only a sophomore...[But] those saves, she's capable of making those," O'Brien said. "She's been mentally able to get herself to that next level, as far as, 'You know what, two or three are going to go in, but I've got to make that next stop. She's just been working incredibly hard."
Lockdown D: Speaking to O'Connor's performance, O'Brien heaved plenty of praise unto the defense in front of her, calling it their best performance of the year and giving the sophomore goalie plenty of confidence. Considering the Rockets are already allowing just over six goals per game, and boast Division 1-bound midfielders in Shelby Aubin (Georgetown) and Tory Waldstein (Harvard), that praise is especially impressive.
"They were composed, they were aggressive," O'Brien said. "The referees were great. They [Needham] figured out they were being allowed to play the game, so they took some chances. They communicated well, their slides were good, their switches were good, it was just a very well-rounded game for them."
Dink and Dunk: One area the Rockets excelled at in the offensive end was with flashing towards the net, and in turn drawing defenders outward to open up diagonal lanes underneath in front of the net. That created some entry passes that were dumped off at close range from the net.
Between UConn-bound attack Ally Fazio, UMass-bound twins Anne and Kate Farnham, along with a supporting cast of scorers like juniors Jaclyn Torres and Meagan Keefe, Andover is not exactly a team where one can afford to mark a specific player. Asked if there was anything specific the Rockets were looking to exploit, O'Brien noted the Warriors' quick adjustments, pointing to Torres, who scored the team's first four goals.
"We were really more just trying to draw anybody out," O'Brien said. "Because we were just trying to create space for those lanes, to either dodge or free up that open person because they were starting to double us, so we needed to free up that person and find that open person in the middle."
Read and React: Needham won 11 of the game's first 15 draw controls, which yielded a sizeable advantage in time of possession.
"That's something that we've been working on," O'Brien said. "We've been doing reaction drills for the last week and a half, because we knew that was what would cost us as we face this tough schedule ahead. It's something that we've been working intensely on, in regards to just, getting those draw controls, working on just really that reaction time, getting off that line first, because we knew it was going to be won on the circle or on the restraining line."