BRAINTREE, Mass. - Many of the Needham players showed up for Saturday afternoon’s Division 1 South final at Braintree High sporting more than just the typical playoff mohawk. Most had shaved the letters ‘DB’ into the sides of their heads as a sign of respect for head coach Don Brock.
The longtime coach of the Rockets (the only coach in the program’s history) had been taken to the hospital at halftime of Needham’s semifinal win over Silver Lake and remained in the hospital for the final. Although he was not at the field, Brock remained an inspiration.
“Last game when he went down and the ambulance came onto the field that put a lot of emotion into all of us and it gave us a reason for us to be here and to win,” said senior midfielder Aram Ouligian. “We played with so much heart and we outworked the other team and I think a big part was because of him; we’re playing for him.”
Ouligian, the Carey division MVP and an All-New England selection, scored a pair of goals and Needham held off a late BC High surge for a 2-1 victory and the program’s second sectional title in three years.
Jay Steeves, who took over as head coach in Brock’s absence, said, “The game could have gone either way, but luckily we were on the right side of it tonight. Two more to win for Don Brock and we’re all set.”
This was the Rockets third consecutive trip to the South final and the memories of last year’s overtime loss to Silver Lake and the added motivation of winning the game for their coach got Needham off to a flying start.
Ouligian remarked, “This was the game that we lost last year and we weren’t going to do it again.”
Senior forward Don Igo created havoc against the BC High defense in the third minute with a run into the box and a shot that was deflected past the post. On the ensuing corner, Ouligian had a chance from just outside the six-yard-box but BC High keeper Chris Phillips made a terrific reaction save down to his left.
In the 20th minute, Phillips came to the Eagles rescue again and this time in even more spectacular fashion. Marco O’Donnell cut inside on his left foot and his shot angled across the box where Igo was lurking but Phillips was able to smother the shot for a corner. That corner found Ouligian for a towering header destined for the top corner until Phillips, an Eastern Mass. All-Star, made a flying, fingertip save to keep it out.
BC High coach Billy Ryan said, “Chris has been our most improved player all year. He’s a tremendous leader out there and he made some tremendous saves. He really puts us in a position to win.”
Four minutes before the break, Needham had the breakthrough. Senior captains Jason Miller and Ouligian combined to put Needham ahead when Miller danced past his defender on the left touchline and squared the ball across the box to Ouligian, who directed it inside the far post.
The start of the second half mirrored the first. Needham continued to press forward and Ouligian continued to create chances.
He had a shot blocked out for a corner from six yards out after Igo created an opening on the left and then flashed to the near post to meet a cross from Miller but it was a comfortable save for Phillips. He also had a header on a free kick that sailed inches wide.
“Aram is an absolute beast,” said Steeves. “He’s like a man playing among kids out here. Having the ability to drop him back defensively always helps out to kill off a game.”
Ouligian seemed to give Needham control of the title in the 53rd minute when he got on the end of an Igo free kick at the near post and flicked an unstoppable header under the crossbar to make it 2-0.
About the connection he has with fellow attackers Miller and Igo, Ouligian said. “We’ve been playing together since we were eight and we formed that chemistry. He knows where I’m going to be and I know where he’s going to put the ball.”
Instead of making the game comfortable for the Rockets, the goal spurred BC High into action and the Eagles began to press into the attacking third.
Christian Labeck cut onto his left foot and had a shot deflect inches past the top corner and then seven minutes later he sent in a free kick that was knocked up off the crossbar at the back post before Needham cleared the rebound.
In the 63rd minute, Igo had a chance at one end when he took on two defenders and forced a save out of Phillips (seven saves in the game). Immediately down the other end, Eagles defender Ryan Tropenao took advantage of a mistake by Needham keeper Alex Raskind (three saves) but his goal bound shot was cleared off the line by Paul Kondratyev.
Steeves said, “I thought Paul was immense. He was the difference the first time we played them. He got hurt, went out, and they kind of pushed us around in the midfield. He was very good today.”
BC High finally got on the board with 13 minutes remaining. Alpha Fofanah reacted first to a header back into the box on a cleared free kick by Tropenao. Fofanah sent his header into the far post out of the reach of Raskind to make it 2-1.
Ryan said, “I don’t think my kids ever quit; they kept going until the final whistle. I thought our kids worked hard throughout the whole game.”
He added, “After the goal we had some more momentum and we could’ve scored the equalizer, but tonight unfortunately that second ball did not go in.”
The Eagles spent the final 13 minutes on the front foot and continued to press Needham back towards its own goal, but still the Rockets posed a threat on the break with Igo again forcing Phillips to make a sliding save.
In the end, Needham had enough to hold on for a victory to make Coach Brock proud.
Needham will face North champion St. John’s Prep in the state semifinal on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Manning Field in Lynn.
D1 South girls: Whitman-Hanson 2, Franklin 1 (2 OT)
Freshman midfielder Taylor Kofton pounced on a loose ball with six minutes remaining in the second overtime to lift Whitman-Hanson to its first D1 South title since 2009 and prevent Franklin from winning its third straight sectional title.
In fact, Whitman-Hanson is the first non-Hockomock team to win the South since its last victory (Franklin in 2010 and 2012-13 and Oliver Ames in 2011).
Franklin was missing two-time Hockomock League MVP Taylor Cogliano, who was injured in practice this week, but still got off to a great start. Sophomore Megan Adams stole the ball of the toe of a defender and scored to give Franklin a 1-0 lead in the fifth minute. One minute later, Bailey Knous had a great chance from inside the six but Arianna Comendul made a point-blank save at full stretch.
In the 22nd minute, Knous got on the end of a cross by Alexis Stowell and deflected it over the keeper but Kelsey Gilbert, who was everywhere for the Whitman-Hanson defense, cleared it off the line.
Instead of 3-0, the Franklin lead was just one goal and in the 31st minute, Alexis Fruzzetti met a cross by Kofton at the back post to tie the game.
“I thought their speed and athleticism gave us some trouble in the beginning and we were kind of back on our heels a little bit and they had the one and we were happy that Ari came up with the huge save to keep it 1-0,” explained Whitman-Hanson coach David Floeck.
He added, “We felt in the first overtime that we were getting the better of the chances and we were just hoping that we would get one before PKs.”
The score stayed tied into the second overtime period. Fruzetti created the chance with a cross from the right side that Franklin keeper Dani Lonati came for but could not collect. Rachel Kelly settled the ball in the box but her shot was blocked and Kofton was on hand to collect the loose ball and fire it inside the post for the winner.
Whitman-Hanson will face Lincoln-Sudbury in the D1 state semifinal game on Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Manning Field.