WINCHESTER — The Manchester Essex girls lacrosse team knew it was in for likely its toughest game of the year yesterday.
After throttling Shawsheen in the first round of the tournament and squeaking out a close win over Cape Ann League rival Ipswich in the Division 2 North quarterfinals, the No. 4 seed Hornets were looking to extend their run with an upset win over top-seeded Winchester yesterday.
For a time, the Hornets were in a position to do just that. They dominated possession for much of the first half and kept the game within a goal until midway through the second half. From there though, the experience of the Sachems shone through.
Winchester closed the game on a 6-1 run, riding four-goal performances from Abby Wheeler and Lacey Hale and a dominant performance by goalie Hallie Stone to a 12-6 victory.
The final score, however, does little to represent how close the game really was.
“I was really proud of us, we had an awesome first half and our defense was amazing,” Hornets coach Sarah Holch said. “They just had some really nice transitions in the second half. They had some beautiful plays and they really maintained their composure. We played them before (a 17-7 loss in 2011) and we had such an amazing game this time compared to that so I’m just really proud of our team.”
Throughout yesterday’s first half, the Hornets struggled in what had developed as one of their strong suits: draw control.
The Sachems controlled six of the first half’s eight draws, establishing possession early and often.
Oddly enough, that made very little difference. The Hornets’ defense stood strong against a powerful Winchester attack and jumped out to an early 1-0 lead when Olivia Lantz sparked quick transition and fed Brittany Smith for the game’s first goal.
The teams traded goals for the rest of the first half despite Manchester Essex’s dominant possession. The Hornets cycled through their offense, patiently looking for rare holes in Winchester’s defense.
When they found those holes, though, Stone was there for the save more often than not. The junior goalie piled up 14 saves, seven in each half, to frustrate the Hornets’ attack.
“Their goalie was amazing,” Holch said. “That was the best we’ve seen a goalie play this year. She had an awesome game. Unbelievable.”
Missed first-half opportunities were ultimately what sealed the Hornets’ fate. Trailing 4-3 heading into halftime, the Hornets tied the game just 46 seconds into the second half on a Taylor Meek strike.
From there, the game started slipping away. The Hornet’s struggles on draws allowed Winchester to notch consecutive goals within 20 seconds of each other twice in the second half — once to turn a 4-4 tie into a 6-4 lead, and again to extend a 6-5 lead to 8-5 — and pulled away from there.
As the Hornets pushed to close the gap, they further exposed themselves to Winchester’s strong transition game and allowed the Sachems to pull away late and build up the lopsided final score.
Smith and senior co-captain Carolyn Heslop led the way offensively with two goals apiece while senior co-captain Olivia Mastendino added a goal and an assist. Goalie Katie Furber tallied seven saves against Winchester’s potent attack.
While yesterday’s win ended an impressive season for the Hornets, the future appears even brighter. The Hornets will need to deal with the graduation of their five seniors — Heslop, Mastendino, Sarah Sergeant, Megan Jones and Maddi Bistrong — but they’ll return the majority of their core to the field next year.
Throw in the experience of a deep tournament run to a team that finished 2013 at 16-3, and the Hornets look to be a force to be reckoned with come next season.
“Every year we seem to do better,” Holch said. “We had a great season. We gave this a good fight. It wasn’t a blowout, even though the score might look like it was. That was a tough game for that team. I’m really proud of our girls.”