The Pilgrim girls’ soccer team would have liked to walk away from Exeter-West Greenwich on Monday afternoon with a win, but the Pats weren’t complaining about their 2-2 draw with the Scarlet Knights.
It was no small accomplishment.
EWG is the two-time defending Division II state champion, and it was undefeated heading into the game against Pilgrim. The Scarlet Knights hadn’t lost or even tied a game since the 2010 season.
Then Pilgrim came to town. The Pats raced out to a 2-0 advantage in the first half, saw EWG come back to tie the score and then nearly scored late to grab the win before settling for the draw.
In a match-up of the top two teams in D-II, it was the type of back-and-forth contest that highlighted the talent on the field. And the Pats showed that they could play with the best.
“We’re on the road playing an undefeated team, and I think we gave them everything they could handle,” Pilgrim head coach Mike Weber said. “I’m very happy with the way we played. I think we took it to them, for the most part. There were maybe 10 minute periods where we would lose a little bit of control, but for the most part we controlled the game.”
EWG is now 12-0-1 and has clinched the top seed in D-II, while the Pats are in second at 10-1-2 and are on the verge of locking up the No. 2 seed.
The Scarlet Knights hadn’t trailed in any game all year until Monday, and they had played just two games that were decided by one goal. Earlier this season, they defeated Division I power East Greenwich 2-0.
Pilgrim lost its first game of the year 2-1 to North Smithfield, and hasn’t lost since, running off a 12-game points streak.
And, both teams are head and shoulders above the rest of the division in goal differential. EWG leads at plus-49, while Pilgrim is at plus-43. The next closest is Westerly at plus-26.
“We knew Pilgrim was going to be the big battle,” EWG head coach Kevin Fraser said. “We’re two of the strongest teams in the division. The good news, if both teams make it to the finals, it will be a heck of a final.”
Right off the bat, the Pats showed that they weren’t intimidated.
Just five minutes into the contest, Nicole Starkey received the ball on a corner kick just outside the 6-yard box on the left, and her shot from there floated into the net past EWG keeper Kathryn Regan.
That made it 1-0, and it put the Scarlet Knights behind on the scoreboard for the first time all season.
“They were ready,” Weber said. “We’re a little ticked off because they made us go down to Westerly on Saturday night, and we had to play Saturday night down there. We come away with a victory there and it set a little fire under them. Then, just playing Exeter-West Greenwich gets you up. Two-time defending state champions.”
Five minutes later, Pilgrim struck again. Talia Geremia carried the ball up toward the 18-yard box and was tripped up by an EWG defender. She regained her balance, though, and somehow got off a high shot that came down in the upper-right of the goal to put the Pats up 2-0.
It was quite a start, but Weber knew that it could evaporate in a hurry.
“I didn’t think two was going to be enough,” Weber said. “I thought we would need one more.”
Meanwhile, Fraser was in the same boat.
“It was early enough in the match,” Fraser said. “I know we have the potential and the firepower to score goals. I knew that it would be difficult to score those goals today, but I knew with as much time as we had that as long as we kept them out of the net the rest of the match that we could chip away.”
Sure enough, EWG came charging right back. Pilgrim’s Megan Sullivan got her head on a ball in the 22nd minute that Regan saved diving to her right. She bounced up quickly and sent the ball back to her teammates, who pressed on a counter-attack.
On the advantage, EWG’s Kara Shaw scissored through the middle and then sent a pass to Allisa Georgio who was streaking down the left side. Georgio won the ball against a Pilgrim defender, got free and slid a shot past Pilgrim keeper Hannah Paige to cut the lead to 2-1.
“They’re quick,” Weber said. “We got a little too far forward at times, and when they did make the counter-attack they had numbers. They did a nice job countering.”
Both teams had chances at the tail end of the half, as Pilgrim’s Talia D’Ambruoso fired a shot just over the net, while EWG’s Emily LePage had an open look before Pilgrim’s Heather Wolfenden cut down her angle and deflected the shot wide.
After the half, EWG picked up the intensity. It forced a corner kick 30 seconds into the half, and although it amounted to nothing, the tone was set.
And eight minutes later, the Scarlet Knights tied it up.
Kathleen Rafanelli took a corner kick and Paige came out of the goal to try to make the save. She dove at the ball and deflected it, but was taken to the ground in the process.
A rush for the ball ensued, and LePage ended up getting a foot on it and pushing it into the net to even the score at 2-2.
“I had questions on their second goal on whether or not there should have been a foul, but that’s the way it goes,” Weber said.
Clearly fired up again, the Pats went back to holding play. They nearly took the lead in the 51st minute when Katie Viera pounded a shot off the crossbar, and a long range shot from Cara Beneduce sailed over the goal four minutes later.
In the 31st, Erica Hammond took a free kick into the box, but nobody was able to get a clean shot off.
With time winding down, Pilgrim pressured one more time, and D’Ambruoso connected on a header off of a Sullivan cross, but Regan was there for the save.
The game ended shortly after, and though they didn’t win, the Pats left the field as the only team to put any sort of dent in EWG’s armor in more than two years.
“When we play all together, I think as the season has gone along I think we’ve gotten better and better,” Weber said. “That’s what you want to do. You want to work to peak.”
The next day, EWG locked up the top seed with a 3-1 victory over Ponaganset and Pilgrim inched closer to the No. 2 seed with an 8-4 win over Burrillville.
The Pats will end the season today at Tiverton at 7 p.m. They need a tie in that match to clinch the second seed, but would likely end up at No. 2 even with a loss.
Then come the playoffs. The quarterfinal round begins Thursday Nov. 1, and Pilgrim’s game would be that day, Friday or Saturday.
Despite going 13-2-3 and 14-4 the last two seasons, the Pats have been unable to get out of the quarters in either season.
This year, they’ll look to finally get over the hump.
“I have that confidence that we can play with anybody,” Weber said.