The Pilgrim girls’ lacrosse team is going to Brown University. The Pats weren’t willing to accept any other outcome.
Using a well-rounded attack that included eight goals from junior Haley McCusker and dominant goaltending from senior Kayleen Murphy, Pilgrim ran away from No. 2 seed Mount St. Charles in the semifinal round of the Division III playoffs, notching a 15-6 victory and earning a place in its first-ever championship game.
Pilgrim, the No. 3 seed, will take on top-seeded Narragansett on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Brown.
This is just the third season in the history of the Pilgrim girls’ lacrosse program, and the team did not qualify for the playoffs in either of the first two. In its third season, its just one win away from hoisting a trophy.
“Our girls just rose up and we really wanted it today,” Pilgrim head coach Tom Flanders said. “It was just one of those things where we were not going to be denied that trip to Brown.”
Nursing a 7-4 lead at halftime, Pilgrim scored the first seven goals of the second half to blow the game wide open. McCusker scored three in that span, Betsy Heidel scored two and Cara Beneduce scored as well to put the Pats ahead 14-4 with 4:17 left.
The rest of the game was just a formality, as Pilgrim won its second straight playoff game. It beat Scituate 21-4 in the quarterfinals.
Murphy made 13 saves in net, capping off a performance in which Pilgrim made beating a higher seed look like it was beating a last-place team. The Pats had beaten Mount 23-15 during the regular season.
“I never really thought we could blow any team out in the beginning of the year,” Murphy said. “But when we started playing as a team all together, we figured anything could be possible. Going into playoffs, we never thought blowing out a team would be possible, but I guess it happens.”
The game was tied 2-2 for much of the first half before the Pats began to separate. With 8:30 to play, McCusker went behind the net, came back in front and scored. Two minutes later, Beneduce scored on a free position and then McCusker scored 20 seconds after that. Heidel won the ensuing draw and scored two minutes after that, making it 7-2.
Heidel won four consecutive face-offs during that span.
“Possession is everything,” Heidel said. “Once you have possession you have the upper hand. You have to get that right off the bat. We have to focus on that.”
The Mounties scored twice before the end of the half, getting goals from Meaghan Walsh and Alexandra Goralski, and the Pats headed in to the break with a 7-4 advantage.
Pilgrim, despite giving up the two late goals, was still plenty confident.
“If this team is playing with confidence, there is nobody better,” Flanders said. “They possess the ball, they help each other out, and they make each other look really great with the passes they do.”
It showed immediately after the next whistle. Murphy made a great save on Goralski to begin the second half, and Heidel made two spin moves on the other end before scoring. That started the streak.
Four minutes later, McCusker scored on a beautiful individual play from the top of the zone, and Heidel then won the ensuing draw and scored again. After that it was Beneduce’s turn, as she ran all the way to the net from mid-field and easily scored high on Mount goalie Rachel Leclaire. McCusker then scored three consecutive times, and the Pats were in complete control.
“(McCusker) came over to me and said, ‘I’m a little off today,’” Flanders said. “I said, ‘Kid, I’ll take you off any day of the week.’ She’s putting eight goals in and she’s telling me she’s off. That’s the type of player she is. That’s how competitive she is.”
During Pilgrim’s flurry, Heidel was kicked out of the game for receiving her second yellow card, but the team didn’t miss a beat. Michaela Giuttari stepped in and took the draws, and everything continued on normally, with the Pats still dominating.
“Giuttari, she’s a sophomore and she’s just a tremendous player,” Flanders said. “She can take that on. She did a great job for us.”
Samantha McPhee scored for Mount at the 3:03 point, but McCusker came right back with her eighth goal less than a minute later. Goralski then finished the scoring with a goal with 54 seconds left before Murphy emphatically ended the game with two saves on free positions. The defense in front of her – Britney Howland, Megan Sullivan and Kelly Vatter, also did their jobs all night long.
“Kayleen was fantastic,” Flanders said. “We weren’t even talking to her because we didn’t want to mess anything up. We were a little superstitious. Sometimes the ball looks like a beach ball to her and today was just one of those days where she was seeing it.”
Mount actually took a 1-0 lead two minutes into the game when Caitlin Barnabe scored on her own rebound, but McCusker tied it up off the ensuing draw. Kelsey Martin then scored for Pilgrim to make it 2-1 before Mount’s Shaina Bauersachs scored off a free position to tie the score up again before the Pats ran off five straight.
Heidel finished the game with four goals, while Beneduce had two and Martin had one. Giuttari added four assists.
“It was a total team effort,” Flanders said. “We had a lot of kids in and out. We’re just happy with the result.”
Now the Pats will take on their nemesis, undefeated Narragansett, a team that handed them two of their three losses this season. Pilgrim lost to the Mariners 7-6 on April 6 and then 21-19 on May 16.
Both games were close. Because of that, the Pats know they have a chance to win the Division III championship on Saturday.
“We’re in every game we play,” Flanders said. “We’re not going to get blown out by anybody. We’re going to go in there, we’re going to battle and we’re going to do our very, very best.”