LYNN, Mass. -- Defense has been the calling card all season long for the Central Catholic girls' soccer team. So it comes as fitting, then, that one of its most unheralded, defensive-minded stalwarts came through in the most crucial moment of last night's Division 1 Eastern Mass. final at the Manning Bowl.
With 4:16 left in the first overtime with South champion Franklin, and with traffic in the box in front of Franklin keeper Ellie Getchell, Red Raiders senior midfielder Nicolette Pelrine swooped in behind her defender from up top, and slipped a loose ball through Getchell for a dramatic 1-0 win to send them to Friday's state finals. Central (17-3-1) will travel to Worcester State College Friday night to face Central/Western Champ Shrewsbury, 3-1 winners over Chicopee Comprehensive, for the state championship.
The goal was just the second of the season for Pelrine, who is often tasked with marking the opposing team's best offensive threat.
"It's incredible, amazing," Pelrine smiled about the goal. "It's probably something I'll never get back."
After a pedestrian first half, the Raiders turned up the pressure in the Panthers' half of the field, opening up a series of breaks deep in the left flank for midfielder Alex Riddle. The junior made the most of her chances, putting several crosses in the box that were served just wide of the net, before striking a leading cross from Seton Hall-bound forward Mikayla Hickey just over the crossbar with six minutes left.
"I think we just wore her (the Franklin defender) down," Central head coach Casey Grange said. "The girls hate to run, but we made them run a hell of a lot, and that's why they were still kicking at the end of a championship game."
"We just really wanted to use our flanks and get the crosses off, because they had a really good stopper," Pelrine said. "We had quick midfielders on the outside, so we just try to get it in, basically. Just cross it in and finish early."
Riddle followed that up with four minutes left with arguably the Raiders' best chance of regulation. From 25 yards out on the left flank, Riddle threaded a rolling lead pass across the box to the right post, where a sliding Jill Lane one-timed it along the turf just wide of the far post.
In stoppage time, the Panthers (19-2-2) got arguably their best chance when junior Catie Phelan chased down a long lob pass down the middle, drawing Central keeper Jane Hatzikonstantis off her line, and headed it just over the crossbar.
The Central aggression was evident in the second half and overtime, but Grange said her staunch defense, led by Hatzikonstantis in net, allowed them to play up a little bit more.
"She's just been phenomenal," Grange said of Hatzikonstantis, who recorded her 16th shutout of the season with the win. "I don't think she got tested too much during the regular season, so nobody other than us knew really what she was all about. And so when the state tournament came around, people got to see Jane on display. We see it every day in practice, but nobody outside the team gets to see how phenomenal she is.
"Her reaction time is really fast, and she's just always there -- somehow, some way. She's also a great leader, and an even better kid."