The last few years, the Pilgrim girls’ soccer team has built a reputation as one of the best teams in Division II. As a result, the Patriots are taking everybody’s best shot this season, even though the team is as young as it’s been throughout its run of success.
But the Pats are handling those best shots.
And the reputation is as strong as ever.
Pilgrim held off a determined Johnston team for a 2-1 victory on Tuesday afternoon. It was the fourth straight win for the Pats, who are 4-0-1 and sitting in a familiar spot near the top of the D-II standings.
“If you said you’re going to be 4-0-1 five games in, I would have signed for that in a second,” said head coach Tom Flanders. “We’re battling. It’s not going to be an easy thing. There’s a lot of good teams. We’ll just do our best.”
Pilgrim played Tiverton to a 1-1 draw in its season opener. Since then, the Pats have done nothing but win. They topped North Smithfield 2-1, Classical 4-1 and Mount St. Charles 3-0 before fending off Johnston on Tuesday.
There have been some rough patches within each game and growing pains along the way. But considering the team’s youth – Pilgrim starts six sophomores – it’s been a terrific start.
And it may only get better.
“The thing we’ve got to remember is that this is a very young team,” Flanders said. “There are a lot of 10th graders on this team, a lot of kids who are playing varsity for the first time. They were hidden behind all those seniors for so long and now it’s their time to shine. They’ve got to get used to being in the spotlight, and when they do they’re going to be a very dangerous team. Hopefully, they’re going to peak at the right time.”
On Tuesday, Pilgrim generally carried the play against winless Johnston but was kept off the scoreboard in the first half. The Panthers defense limited quality chances and the midfield won more than its share of 50-50 balls to keep Pilgrim from dominating possession.
The Patriots still had a flurry of shots but came up empty each time. Johnston goalie Amber Dion made several big saves, including a diving stop on a rocket by Haley McCusker.
“We were able to hang in there,” Johnston coach Tim Sprouls said.
On the Pilgrim side, the issue with the chances was quality vs. quantity. The Pats were getting enough shots, but they weren’t good enough.
“We were basically just trying to go forward too much,” Flanders said. We needed to build a little bit before and not be so predictable. We were very predictable – just turning and going forward. We made some adjustments and the play was a lot better, the chances were a lot better, in the second half.”
And Pilgrim wasted no time capitalizing.
After getting just one corner kick in the first half, the Patriots took four in the first 13 minutes of the second half and turned two of them into carbon-copy goals.
In the 43rd minute, Clare Birney took a corner from the left and placed it into the middle of the box, where Katelyn Vieira headed it into the net. Ten minutes later, that duo connected again and Pilgrim went up 2-0.
“We had times when we were playing like islands,” Flanders said. “The strikers were up and the mids were back. We made that adjustment at halftime. Once they started closing those gaps, we were putting them under pressure and they were putting the ball out of bounds. Once that starts to work, it’s very effective and you’ll get those corners.”
After the second goal, Johnston did some of its best work of the day, creating a handful of chances and forcing Pilgrim goalie Hannah Page into action. In the 69th minute, the Panthers broke through. A cross by Danielle DeAngelis was headed into the air by Zenobia Griffin. It came down and bounced around before Gravel volleyed it past Page and into the net.
“That was nice and it was a team effort down there,” Sprouls said. “We had three girls in the box and they all just kept hanging in there and hanging in there.”
Suddenly, the Panthers were right back into the game, but Pilgrim didn’t let a comeback get off the ground, with defenders Birney, Sophie DeLuca, Erin Plowman and Haley Buco keeping Johnston at bay. Gravel and Christina Hardman teamed up for a run with eight minutes left, but Birney – Pilgrim’s sweeper – cleared the ball before a scoring chance could develop. With four minutes left, Hardman got loose but was called for offsides. Apart from those chances, Pilgrim controlled the action and held on.
“We’re getting everybody’s best game, and we’ve been up to that,” Flanders said.
Despite the unbeaten start, the Pats see plenty of things to work on. On Tuesday, both goals came on dead-ball situations.
“We still didn’t finish one on the field so we’ve got some work to do,” Flanders said.
And the Pats will be working with an eye on a showdown. They’ll visit fellow unbeaten Scituate on Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
“We’ve got a tough game against Scituate on Saturday,” Flanders said. “We’ll get back to practice and correct what we need to correct. I think they all know the things they can do better and that’s big when they understand that.”