The Warwick Vets girls’ soccer team beat first-place Burrillville early in the season, and that’s shaping up to be a big win as the playoffs approach.
It wasn’t as big as Tuesday’s win.
Playing cross-town rival Pilgrim as a division foe for the first time since 2005, Vets got an early goal from Madison Bastan and then a stoppage time goal from Lauren Almonte to break a 1-1 deadlock and lift the ’Canes to a dramatic 2-1 victory.
“It just feels fantastic,” Almonte said. “I know for a lot of the seniors, this is one of the biggest games for us for the season. It just feels great to win it. It’s a relief.”
The game was important on many different levels. For one, Vets moved down to Division II this year, making the rivalry between the teams suddenly count in the standings. Both teams are also very much in contention in D-II, as Pilgrim came into the day one point ahead of the ’Canes for second-place in the division.
Thirdly, Pilgrim’s head coach is Tom Flanders, who had coached with Vets for the past 20 years before taking over the Pats job this year.
“It was kind of surreal,” Flanders said. “You see kids for three years play for you, then you look out on the field and they’re in another jersey. You see (Casey) Bennett and (Emily and Lauren Almonte) and so forth, and it’s definitely surreal.”
With so many storylines leading up to the game, it was fitting that it was decided by a wild set of events over the final six minutes.
Vets scored first in the 28th minute, when Sloan Kinney crossed the ball into the box from the right and it bounced around to the foot of Bastan, who put it into the top-right corner. That made it 1-0, and it stayed that way into the waning minutes of the second half.
In the 78th minute, though, Pilgrim’s high-powered offense – specifically forward Katelyn Vieira, the state’s ninth-leading scorer – broke through.
Goalkeeper Hannah Page punted the ball to midfield, where Haley McCusker won it for Pilgrim. After a few dribbles up the field, she flipped a pass to the middle toward Vieira, who had two defenders on her hip. Vieira made one move to elude both defenders, got past Vets goalie Katelen Pick and casually touched the ball into the net for the equalizer.
“There are a lot of teams in this league that have that one go-to girl, and Katie Vieira is a tremendous player,” Vets head coach Fred Schweizer said. “You have to keep track of them. We lost her once and she put it in the back of the net. That’s the type of player she is.”
Even though the goal was scored late, there was plenty of time left. There had been some stoppages earlier in the game, and stoppage time was scheduled to run long.
Vets made the most of it.
“I had a lot of confidence in the fact that they were battling and wouldn’t give up,” Schweizer said of his team. “They haven’t given up all year. They’ve been behind before and they’ve come back. They’re a team that battles from the first whistle to the last whistle.”
Two minutes into stoppage time, the ’Canes were awarded a corner, and Kinney did the honors. She kicked a low ball that somehow found its way through a hoard of players into the box. It bounced around and off players for a few seconds before Almonte somehow got a foot on it and knocked it over Page into the goal.
“It was a lot of back and forth,” Almonte said. “People were kicking it off shins. I just stuck a leg out and popped it in. I was in the right place at the right time.”
The goal-scoring play was controversial, as Page was kicked on the play and stayed down for a minute afterwards. Flanders went to talk to the officials, but they upheld the goal.
“I simply asked a question – how’d she get hurt? They responded, ‘She got kicked in the head,’” Flanders said. “So I immediately said, ‘Well that’s a foul.’ They didn’t agree with me, so that’s that. But hat’s off to (Vets). There was no whistle. They scored. That’s soccer.”
The game nearly took on an entirely different look in the first half, as Pilgrim twice drilled a shot off the post. First, in the fifth minute, McCusker hit the right post from the top-left area of the box, but the ball rolled away harmlessly. In the 34th minute, Clare Birney took a direct kick from just outside the box and hit it hard, but as it slid past Pick, it hit the middle of the post and was eventually cleared by Vets.
“The kids played very, very well,” Flanders said. “I thought we were unlucky a lot of the game. We hit a couple posts in the beginning. Then a few opportunities we had in the second half. It just wasn’t in the cards today for us.”
From that point on, Vets dictated play. Bennett, usually the team’s stopper, spent the majority of the day running stride for stride with Vieira, and limited her chances until that late goal.
It was a key component in the ’Canes’ victory.
“Once (Vieira) moved forward, Casey stepped on her and did an unbelievable job – which is exactly what we expected,” Schweizer said. “We practiced that.”
With only three games remaining for both teams in the regular season, they are each in position to finish in the top four and get a first-round bye. Vets is 9-2-0 and is in third place with 27 points. Pilgrim is in fourth with an 8-2-1 record and 25 points. Burrillville leads the division with 30 points and a 10-2 record – although it has played one more game than either Pilgrim or Vets – and Lincoln is second with 29 points at 9-0-2.
The Pats and ’Canes still have some tests remaining on their schedules. Vets hosts Westerly today at 6:30 p.m., before going to Lincoln on Tuesday for a game that could decide first place. After that, it closes the season at Ponaganset on Thursday.
“I’d like them to ride this into the next game and into the next goal, which is Westerly,” Schweizer said.
Pilgrim travels to Narragansett today at 4 p.m., then hosts Westerly on Tuesday. It ends the season with Burrillville on Thursday.
“They handled that loss extremely well,” Flanders said. “I think they did it with a lot of class. It’s not easy losing to a city rival, it’s not easy losing to someone with eight wins. I think they handled it pretty well.”