TAUNTON, Mass. –- Shannon Fitzgerald scored with seven minutes remaining to lift Newton North into the state championship game after a 2-1 victory over defending state champion Franklin on Tuesday evening at Taunton High.
The winning goal was created by fellow forward Angela Ward sliding a pass through to the speedy Fitzgerald, who had made a diagonal run across the Franklin defender. Fitzgerald, who is committed to play lacrosse at Johns Hopkins next year, held off her marker and was able to slide the ball past keeper Dani Lonati.
It is a common sight for Newton North head coach James Hamblin to see his senior striker come through in a clutch situation. That was Fitzgerald’s 29th goal of the season and her seventh of the tournament.
“She takes her chances,” explained Hamblin. “She didn’t do much in the first half, but in the second half you just need to give her that one opportunity and she gets the game-winner time and time again. She’s been huge for us this season.”
Franklin head coach Tom Geysen admitted that his team was guilty of sitting back, but gave credit to the Tigers. He noted, “That’s the best team we’ve faced...easily.”
Geysen added, “That breakdown on the second goal happened for several reasons. They kept pushing, pushing, pushing and [with] that kind of pressure eventually you will make a mistake and they capitalized.”
It was Fitzgerald who created the first shot of the game in the opening minute of the first half. Her near post effort after cutting in from the left would be one of the few chances that either team created in the opening 40 minutes. The Panthers allowed Newton North to have the ball and attempt long through balls to the forward that Lonati and central defenders Julia Bireley and Nicole Ellin were able to clear.
Within the opening 10 minutes of the second half, the Panthers were able to show their strength on the counterattack and took the lead. Victoria Stowell picked out her sister Alexis with a diagonal ball on the edge of the Newton North penalty area. Alexis took it first time on the volley and put her shot into the top corner.
It was an incredible goal, but it also seemed to spark the Tigers into life.
Three minutes later, a cross from the right was tipped but not held by Lonati and it fell into the path of Ward, who nodded it home for the equalizer. The Tigers started to use width and Fitzgerald sent in several dangerous crosses through the six-yard-box that the Franklin defense struggled to deal with.
It was the width that Hamblin was looking for all game long.
He explained, “I think my forwards were too narrow and that made for less opportunities. We like to use the width, so we were playing too many straight passes and too many straight runs, not enough diagonal runs or switch passes.”
Bay State Conference MVP Christina Callahan also had a pair of shots saved by Lonati, including one that seemed destined for the top corner before the sophomore stuck a hand out to knock it over the bar. Shortly after that save, the Tigers finally found a seam and a winning goal.
“When that goal went in it lit something underneath our, you know, and it was great to see the character of the team,” remarked Hamblin. “It was great that they trusted each other and trusted the system.”
Franklin has won three out of the last four D1 South titles and with a team comprised almost entirely of underclassmen, Geysen expects that the Panthers will challenge again next year, if they keep the same attitude.
He said, “There’s a lot of young kids coming back next season and if they continue to work in the off-season and that idea of playing for each other and not playing for themselves; I think that’s why we were as successful as we were.”
Newton North will head into the state championship game on Friday at Worcester State at 5 p.m. to take on West sectional winners Minnechaug.