The Pilgrim girls’ soccer team hadn’t been to a semifinal game in 13 years, and the magnitude of the moment showed in Saturday’s match-up with Tiverton at Cranston Stadium.
The Pats came out a step slower than their opponent, surrendered an early goal and fell victim to an own goal later in the half. A furious second-half rally fell just short, and Pilgrim saw its dream season come to a close with a frustrating 2-1 loss.
“We didn’t come out crisp and clean,” Pilgrim head coach Mike Weber said. “I don’t know why, because I thought we were ready. All the indications that I had were that they were ready. It’s a different stage then they’ve been in, and they just kind of backed off a little bit.”
Pilgrim was coming off its first postseason victory since 2000, a 4-1 win over Westerly in last week’s Division II quarterfinals. The Pats had suffered quarterfinal losses each of the past two years, and the win erased some of the demons of the previous playoff struggles.
And after an 11-1-2 regular season that included a streak of 13 consecutive games without a loss to end the year, and then the win over Westerly, Pilgrim was feeling confident heading into the semifinals.
Plus, the second-seeded Pats had beaten No. 6 Tiverton 4-3 during the regular season. When the game started, however, the Tigers quickly seized control.
“I thought that they were loose enough,” Weber said, “but they didn’t come out like they do.”
Just three minutes into the game, Tiverton’s Jacqueline Wilson found herself open in the center just over midfield. She carried the ball close to the box before dumping it to the left for Samantha Welchman. Welchman took a left-footed shot that froze Pilgrim keeper Hannah Page and flew into the left side of the net.
Almost immediately, the Pats were down 1-0.
“The first half we played really well,” Tiverton head coach Joe Gill said. “We showed up and were ready to go.”
Pilgrim settled down after that goal and began to dictate a lot of the play. But in the 16th minute, everything changed.
Tiverton was awarded a free kick just over midfield. Allison Benevides took it and sent the ball soaring toward the center of the box. A group of players leaped to head the ball, and it came down on a Pilgrim player’s head.
The ball ricocheted to the left and flew into the top of the net for a terribly unlucky own goal. The Tigers led 2-0.
“Tough break on the second goal,” Weber said.
Weber tried to calm his team down, and the Pats set out to cut into the lead. Two minutes after the goal, Pilgrim had its best opportunity of the half as Kendra Tantimonico took a shot from the right that beat Tiverton keeper Haley Higginbottom, but the ball caromed off the left post and bounced harmlessly away.
The Pats went into halftime trailing 2-0, but after tying for the division lead in goals in the regular season, they knew they weren’t out of it yet.
From the opening whistle of the second, Pilgrim applied relentless pressure. It had a corner kick in the 43rd, a free kick from 30 yards out in the 47th, another free kick from 20 yards away in the 49th and multiple other chances.
They all came up empty.
“We couldn’t finish,” Weber said. “We had opportunities and then we got into a little bit of a panic mode. We didn’t send the ball wide enough often enough. We kept sending balls into the strength of their defense, and they were just kicking the ball out.”
In the 60th minute, the Pats took another corner that was cleared. Three minute later, Katie Viera and Megan Sullivan both took shots from inside the box that deflected off Tiverton defenders.
Something had to give.
“After watching how many corner kicks and all that stuff, I said, ‘It’s just a matter of time,’” Gill said. “That clock, those 40 minutes, took like five hours.”
Finally, in the 67th minute, the Pats got on the board. Talia D’Ambruoso took a corner kick from the right and it went to the far end of the box. Viera was there for a clean header into the net, cutting the deficit to 2-1 with just over 13 minutes to play.
And the urgency continued from there on out. Nicole Starkey took a shot that sailed wide in the 70th, and a free kick from Erica Hammond in the 75th landed in the arms of Higginbottom.
No matter how hard Pilgrim tried, it just couldn’t find the equalizer.
“We have the ability to score quick,” Weber said. “It’s just getting the right break. It didn’t come.”
Eventually, time ticked away. The Pats led in shots and time of possession, but finished behind on the scoreboard.
The Tigers, who upset No. 3 seeded Lincoln in the quarterfinals, prevailed, and advanced to the finals. They were scheduled to take on top-seeded Exeter-West Greenwich – which beat North Smithfield 5-1 earlier on Saturday – on Monday, with the results unavailable at press time.
Pilgrim will now say goodbye to a group of 11 seniors, many of whom helped bring the Pats from a struggling program to an annual contender. Over the past four seasons, Pilgrim has won 42 regular season games, including 38 over the past three.
“Great bunch of kids,” Weber said. “They’ve worked extremely hard. I wish they could have gone out on top. It didn’t quite work that way.”