Nobody in Division III plays Narragansett tougher than the Pilgrim girls’ lacrosse team does, but the Pats still haven’t been able to find the recipe to defeat the Mariners.
In Saturday’s Division III championship game at Brown University, they came close. Yet, once again, they came up just a play or two short.
Pilgrim led by as many as three goals and was in front as late in the game as the 12-minute mark until the Mariners came to life. They scored four straight goals, the third of which put them ahead for the first time all game with 11:46 to play. The Pats fought back, but Narragansett held on late, winning 10-8 for its first D-III lacrosse title.
Pilgrim was the hard-luck loser, bringing to a close the best season in the short, three-year history of the program. The Pats improved from 0-14 in year one to 7-7 last year to 8-3 and a championship game berth this season.
“There’s bad losses and then there’s losses that you can kind of live with,” Pilgrim head coach Tom Flanders said. “This is one of those games where we left everything on the field, worked our tails off and the girls played like warriors up until the end. There’s no quit in them. It’s the type of attitude of kids we have here. They’re great kids here at Pilgrim.”
Only the Mariners stood in the way of a Pilgrim championship. It was fitting, given the way the season had played out.
The Pats played Narragansett twice during the regular season and barely lost both games. They lost 7-6 early in the year and then 21-19 later on. The Mariners went 11-0 during the season, with their closest games coming against Pilgrim.
The championship game was the same way. The Pats were right there, but Narragansett was just one step ahead.
“Pilgrim is a very well-coached team, and they’ve got a lot of good players,” Narragansett coach Mark Lubic said. “We’ve got a lot of very good players and we’re a well-coached team. In the end, we ended up making a little bit more plays than they did. That’s just the way sports are.”
With a big crowd supporting the team, Pilgrim got off to an ideal start, scoring first at the 20:37 mark on a shot in front by sophomore Michaela Giuttari. Narragansett tied the score at one three minutes later, but the Pats reeled off the next three goals to take a 4-1 lead.
Freshman Sophie DeLuca scored with 16:20 to play, and junior Haley McCusker buried one on a free position two minutes later. With 11:05 left in the half, Giuttari carried the ball the length of the field before firing a shot past Narragansett’s Ceili O’Connell.
“She doesn’t get fazed by much, and she looks back like she’s been there, done that,” Flanders said of Giuttari, who led Pilgrim with four goals on the day. “It’s refreshing to see a kid that young, that composed.”
Narragansett followed the Pats’ flurry with one of its own, getting three straight goals Abigail McKanna, Eliza DeCubellis and Carly Timpson to tie the score. But Pilgrim finished strong, as Betsy Heidel forced her way to the net with 12 seconds left and scored. The Pats took a 5-4 lead into the break.
Pilgrim carried the momentum into the second half, as McCusker scored her second goal of the game two minutes in. Yet, McCusker – the leading scorer in the state with 97 goals – never scored again, as the Mariners tightened their defense on the junior and limited her touches.
“They face-guarded her, and we kind of tried to get Giuttari and Heidel and Marks and some of our other weapons involved,” Flanders said. “It is what it is. That was their game plan and it worked pretty well.”
In the meantime, Narragansett caught fire. After Heidel was called for a charge, the Mariners came streaking down the field. McKanna got a good look, but Pilgrim goalie Kayleen Murphy – who made eight saves – turned her away. However, Chandler Lemay got the rebound, and she scored low on Murphy to cut Pilgrim’s lead to 6-5.
Then, with 11:46 to play, the Mariners tied the score. Eileen Sullivan found a wide open Brooke McGreen on the left of the goal, and she scored to knot things at six. Sixty-five seconds later, McGreen returned the favor, hitting Sullivan to the left of the net for another goal.
With 10:41 to play, Narragansett had its first lead of the game at 7-6.
“I don’t know what it is,” Flanders said. “It’s a game of momentum, and on their momentum streaks they end up scoring three, four goals. On our momentum streaks, we end up scoring one or two goals. They out-number you by one or two.”
The Mariners weren’t done, as McKanna scored with 7:28 to play for a two-goal lead. From there it was back-and-forth, but Pilgrim could never come all the way back. It made it 8-7 when Giuttari scored with seven minutes to play, but McKanna scored on a perfect pass from Timpson in front with 4:50 to play, and she scored again with 3:23 left. Suddenly it was 10-7.
“When you’re up by a couple goals, the clock can’t move fast enough,” Lubic said.
But the clock kept ticking, and time eventually ran out on the Pats. Giuttari scored on a free position with 2:51 to play to make it 10-8, and Ashley Hager hit the crossbar with 1:20 to play, yet the Pats couldn’t corral the rebound. Instead, Narragansett got it and never gave it up again.
Pilgrim chased pass after pass, but eventually the clock hit zero.
“This is a game of possession, and we just weren’t able to get it at those key times late,” Flanders said.
Narragansett celebrated, but so did the Pats. In three years, without a feeder program, they’d nearly won a title. In contrast, the Mariners have had a team since 2003, won a Division II title in 2005 and have a feeder program.
Even in defeat, Pilgrim knew it had plenty to be proud of.
“When we started, we were 0-14,” senior captain Amibeth Marks said. “Just to stand here and look at the scoreboard and see 10-8 – I said to my teammates, ‘If you’re not proud of that, I don’t know what you can be proud of.’ We started from nothing, and to be in a championship game is an unbelievable feeling.”
The Pats will graduate a huge nucleus of seniors. Kelly Vatter, Cara Beneduce, Julianna Mollo, Britney Howland, Murphy, Marks, Heidel, Erica Hammond, Hager and Megan Sullivan will all be moving on. Giuttari may also not be back next year, as she is considering prep school.
“The seniors that are leaving, they’re going to do unbelievable things in life,” Flanders said. “They’ve picked up a sport and they’re playing somebody in the championship that has a feeder program, that has been in the league for years and all those other things. They never used those as excuses. They just went out and played hard.”
And the future is still bright, as Pilgrim will return McCusker and a number of other contributors like Kelsey Martin and DeLuca.
“It’ll be a chore next year to replace these characters,” Flanders said. “But we’ll persevere. This team will be back in the future.”