TAUNTON — The Newton North Tigers and Franklin Panthers battled Tuesday night for the right to be named top cat in EMass girls’ soccer.
Senior forward Shannon Fitzgerald provided the claws for the North sectional champions, breaking a late tie in the Tigers’ 2-1 victory in the Division 1 state semifinal at Taunton High School.
Tied at 1 deep in the second half, it was clear that Newton North’s strength and speed was wearing on the South sectional champs. With less than nine minutes to go, senior Angela Ward received the ball just beyond midfield with a defender tight on her back. She turned and passed to Fitzgerald, who shook her defender, took one dribble to draw out Franklin goalkeeper Dani Lonati, and scored. The goal was Fitzgerald’s seventh in this postseason.
“[Fitzgerald] didn’t do much the first half, but you just need to give her that one opportunity and she gets the game-winner time and time again,” said fifth-year Tigers coach James Hamblin.
After a scoreless first half, Newton North (18-0-2) began to spread the field, stretching Franklin’s defense and creating space to attack. Instead of sending direct forward passes that were easy for Lonati to cut off, the Tigers played the angles and crossed balls in from the corners.
The Panthers (17-2-3), however, struck first. They caught Newton North in transition after Lonati saved a shot by senior midfielder Christina Callahan. Lonati punted the ball over the midfield line and the Panthers quickly played the ball up to sophomore forward Alexis Stowell, who turned and made a perfect shot over senior goalkeeper Maddie Bledsoe.
The goal only added fuel to the Tigers’ fiery attack. Three minutes and 22 seconds later, Ward netted the equalizer on a cross from Callahan. With 27 minutes left to play, the game was tied, 1-1.
“It was great to see the character of this team. Because a lot of teams would get their head down and give in,” said Hamblin. “They trusted each other and trusted the system. It was great to see them have that sort of resolve to come back.”
The near-freezing temperature might have kept the crowd thin, but the Tigers started hot. Five minutes in, Fitzgerald ripped a bullet from the top corner of the 18-yard box toward the goal. Lonati made the diving save, but the Tigers’ three-striker attack didn’t let up.
Newton North played through ball after through ball, but Lonati was quick off her line to come out and scoop the ball up before an attacker could get to it, keeping the Tigers off the board until Ward’s strike.
Newton North plays West champion Minnechaug Friday at Worcester State University.