Saturday, June 17, 2017

Needham Girls Lax Gets Defensive to Win D1 State Championship

By Jake Levin (@JakeLevin477)

BOSTON — If you’re going to go over 20 minutes in the second half without scoring a goal, you’d better have a top-notch defense capable of picking up the slack.

Such was the case for the Needham Rockets, a team which weathered a lengthy scoring drought in the second half by limiting its mistakes on the back end in an 8-5 win over the Longmeadow Lancers on Saturday afternoon to capture a Division 1 state championship.

Needham reached the pinnacle after surviving Notre Dame Academy (Hingham), 10-9, to capture the Division 1 South title, and after cruising by North champion Andover, 18-8, in the state semifinals.

Defense defined the Rockets all season long, as Needham (23-3) gave up more than 10 goals just twice in its 26 games.

“We’ve leaned on them pretty heavily all year,” Rockets head coach Beth O’Brien said of the defense after her team hoisted the hardware. “Not only in this game – but in the [Div. 1 South final] NDA game, it was the same thing. We were making huge stops; Liz [Vallatini] always comes up with a few good saves. The defense really has been key to us this year. They’ve stuck to the plan.”

Needham overcame an early 1-0 deficit on a goal scored by Longmeadow’s Allison Tetreault exactly 5 minutes in, racking up four straight goals in response to take the lead for good. 

Naturally, the Rockets’ first goal was the result of a play on the defensive end. Gabby Walsh recovered a ground ball in the shadow of her own goal and ran the length of the field before dishing off to Needham co-captain Sarah Conley for the equalizer at 7:11.

Conley went on to score the go-ahead goal as well for Needham, and dished out an assist on fellow co-captain Caroline Walsh’s goal to close out the 4-0 run.

Conley said that the second half became a mental game for the Rockets, which grabbed a pair of quick goals before the Lancers fought back.

Longmeadow (24-2) had a chance to make it a one-goal game with about 3 minutes remaining in regulation, only to be denied once again by Vallatini, who made six saves in all.

“Everyone was obviously tired, it was a back and forth game for awhile,” Conley said. “That was all in our heads, whether we were going to keep fighting or were we going to let them go on that streak.”

Vallatini’s save enabled Needham to clear the zone, hold on to the ball and run some clock.

O’Brien said after the game that the Rockets had no desire to take a shot right away, unless they found a shooting lane which couldn’t miss. 

With 1:28 to go in regulation, Maeve Barker had the honors for Needham, ripping a no-doubter into an empty net to give the Rockets a three-goal edge.

“We needed to take some time off, because as you know, Longmeadow is potent,” O’Brien said. “They’re good on the draw and they can be potent on offense. We knew that we had to possess the ball so that we didn’t give them an opportunity to get the ball back in their hands. But when you have a shot like that, you take it.”

The cushion was more than enough for Needham to hang on with such little time remaining, as the Rockets secured their first state title since 2002.

“We’ve been working so hard for this, there was so much adrenaline rushing,” Caroline Walsh said. “We knew this was our last game of the season, if we gave it all we had, it’d be worth it in the end.”

Conley, Barker and Callie Hem scored twice each for Needham, with Caroline Walsh and Kendall Milligan adding single goals. With an assist, Conley was the team’s leading scorer with three points.

“What has made the difference in the long run with this group is that they’ve made such good decisions off the field that it’s allowed them to play at such a high level on the field,” O’Brien said of her team, particularly her 12 captains. “They’ve been committed and they’ve been focused.”

Tetreault and Ilana Kofman scored twice for the Lancers, with Kay Conway adding the team’s fifth goal. Emily Oundjian made five saves for Longmeadow in a losing effort.

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