Each of the past two seasons, the Pilgrim girls’ soccer team saw its high expectations turn into bitter disappointment when the playoffs began.
On Monday – and part of Tuesday – the Pats reversed course, and picked up the biggest win for the resurgent program in over a decade.
After being upset in the Division II quarterfinals in 2010 and 2011 as the No. 3 seed, the second-seeded Pats defeated Westerly 4-1 this week to advance to the semifinals and finally put to bed their first-round postseason demons. It was the Pats’ first postseason victory since 2000.
Nearly the entire game was played on Monday, but play was suspended due to darkness with 4:37 left and Pilgrim leading 3-1. The teams returned the field on Tuesday afternoon to wrap it up, and the Pats finished it out in style, adding another goal to finalize the victory.
“It’s been demoralizing the past two years,” said senior defender Heather Wolfenden. “We finished in the top three seeds and this year we were second. It was really good to actually win a game and to know we’re going to go on to the next round.”
Wolfenden is one of 11 seniors on Pilgrim’s roster, almost all of whom were on the team for the early postseason exits.
Knowing that this was their last chance to get over the hump was all the motivation Pilgrim’s senior-laden group needed.
“Before this, we always had the mentality that there’s always next year,” Wolfenden said. “For most of the team, this is our senior year, and we couldn’t have that mentality this year. This is it. This is all we had.”
The urgency showed.
The Pats dictated play right from the opening whistle, not wanting to give No. 7 Westerly any chance to spring the upset. When the teams had met during the regular season, Pilgrim won only 1-0.
As Monday’s game progressed, it looked like it would only be a matter of time before the Pats got on the scoreboard. Wolfenden fired a shot that was barely saved in the 10th minute. A Pilgrim corner just trickled past the far post in the 16th. In the 20th, Cara Beneduce fired a shot that sailed inches over the crossbar.
Finally, in the 25th, Pilgrim’s persistence paid off. Talia D’Ambruoso sent the ball into the box from about 40 yards out, and a Westerly defender got a foot on it in an attempt to send it backwards. But Megan Sullivan was there to trap it as she entered the box, and she took a hard, low shot to the left that skipped into the net for a 1-0 lead.
“It’s nice,” Pilgrim head coach Mike Weber said. “These girls have worked hard for the last four years. They just kept falling a little bit short.”
The Pats continued to control the field, as goal-keeper Hannah Page had to touch the ball only twice in the first half.
Still, with only a one-goal lead, Weber knew his team needed to keep the pressure on. Given how the last two seasons had ended, he didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
“I told them at halftime that we needed at least another goal,” Weber said. “Westerly is a tough team. They’re a good team. We were able to put a couple of runs together.”
In the opening minute of the second half, Sullivan just missed wide on a volley from in front of the net. In the 49th minute, Talia Geremia headed a ball to the right of the goal off a cross.
Again, the urgency was there, and the Pats looked like they would extend their lead in the 54th minute when they received a penalty kick on a hand ball in the box. But D’Ambruoso missed the shot wide, keeping it a one-goal game.
Undeterred, however, the Pats finally got a little breathing room four minutes later. In the 58th minute, freshman Kendra Tantimonico got the ball in the left side of the box, made a move to create some space and lofted a shot toward the net. It sailed into the back right corner, over the head of keeper Sarah Jacques to give Pilgrim a 2-0 lead.
“I think we controlled most of the play for this game,” Weber said. “I think that overall, we played pretty solid and we just have to continue to build on that.”
With the victory seemingly on the horizon, the Pats tried to play a defensive-oriented game to keep Westerly from narrowing the gap, but the Bulldogs finally got on the board in the 69th minute.
After a foul on Pilgrim, Patricia Gagnon took a free kick from 30 yards away on the right and the ball floated perfectly to the back post. MacKenzie Donnelly was there to knee the ball in, cutting Pilgrim’s lead in half.
All of a sudden, a win wasn’t in the books just yet.
“We just needed to lock it down,” Wolfenden said. “That was our thought.”
With darkness setting in on the field and time winding down, Westerly pushed forward in search of the equalizer. That left the Bulldogs vulnerable in the defensive zone, though, and Pilgrim’s Katie Viera took advantage.
She stole a ball near midfield, pushed it ahead and then beat the charging Jacques for possession. Viera continued on toward the goal, easily tapping it across the line for a 3-1 lead. That set off a huge celebration, but the game wasn’t over.
Jacques was injured, and while she was being tended to on the field it was determined that it was too dark to continue.
There was only 4:37 left, and both teams were unsure if the game was technically over or if it would be resumed the next day.
As it turned out, Westerly came back to Pilgrim on Tuesday to play out the final 4:37. Weber made sure his team was ready.
“I approached this like we were going to play a full game,” Weber said. “We went through our normal warm-ups, we got here early enough. Obviously there’s a tendency to think that it’s only four minutes and we’re up 3-1. I said, ‘You can’t go into it with that thought process.’”
It showed, as Pilgrim held the ball for most of the first two minutes before Viera clinched the win with a goal on a pass from Nicole Starkey in the final minute.
For the first time in a three-year stretch of regular season success that has seen the Pats rise up the D-II ranks, they were moving on in the playoffs.
“I said to them that they really deserved to win,” Weber said. “They worked extremely hard. They’re great kids. We’ve had a lot of fun together. I thought they were on the cusp.”
Pilgrim will now play No. 6 Tiverton in the semifinals, which are scheduled for this Saturday at 2 p.m. at Cranston Stadium.
Tiverton upset third-seeded Lincoln 1-0 in the quarterfinals. During the regular season, the Pats defeated Tiverton 4-3.
In the other semifinal, two-time defending champion Exeter-West Greenwich is playing North Smithfield.
The D-II championship game will be played Monday at 2 p.m. at Rhode Island College.
If Pilgrim can get there, it will be seeking the third championship in program history. It won the D-II title in 1989, and won the D-I title in 2000.
“It doesn’t get any easier from here,” Weber said. “We want to get past this next game and we want to get to the finals.”