WORCESTER — For Franklin’s Grace Conley, there was no holding back the tears of joy after the Panthers girls’ soccer team clinched its first Division 1 state championship Friday night with a 2-1 win over Central Mass. champion Nashoba at Worcester State University.
The win held a special significance to the senior captain, who has spent the past two years battling a rare form of cancer that’s kept her on the sidelines more often than not.
After an injury in the Division 1 South tournament created the need, Conley found herself healthy enough to step in and play every minute of the Panthers’ final three games, helping to anchor a defense that surrendered just three goals in that span.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Conley, who earned the nickname, “Team Mom,” thanks to her ability to find ways to contribute to the team even when she couldn’t be on the field — as well as her tendency to cheer louder than anyone else.
“The girl that got hurt, Steph Pisani, she’s one of my cocaptains and, honestly, I wish more than anything that she could have been out here with us. I’m just happy that I was able to get healthy enough to come out here and play and win the state championship.”
“It’s an incredible feeling,” said All-American Kristi Kirshe, who scored both goals for the Panthers (22-0-1). “Losing [Pisani] was heart-breaking, but I think it was fate that Grace got to play.”
Franklin got things rolling early, taking a 1-0 edge in the 12th minute on a Kirshe strike that clanked off the right post.
Kirshe struck again 10 minutes later on an breakaway from 50 yards out, a play set up by sophomore Taylor Cogliano, who also assisted on her first goal. In just seconds, Kirshe, who plans to play for Williams College next season, carried the ball 40 yards, made a cut to her right to avoid the charging Nashoba goaltender, and tapped the ball into an empty net.
“I was just thinking there’s a girl coming behind me, so I’ve got to keep going,” said Kirshe, who finished her high school career with 102 goals. “We practice that sort of stuff all the time — one-on-ones with the keeper. I was just trying to keep my cool, push it one way, go around [the keeper], and just tap it in. And that’s what I did.”
Shortly after halftime, the Chieftains (18-1-4), who last won a Division 1 state championship in 2004, nearly pulled within a goal when Kaitlyn Thorogood connected on a shot that was destined for the right corner, but freshman keeper Danielle Lonati (eight saves) made a diving stop with the tips of her fingers.
“[Lonati’s] incredible,” said Kirshe. “She’s stepped up so much this year. Coming into the year we knew we didn’t have [an experienced] keeper, so she stepped up and she’s improved with every game.’’
Nashoba refused to go quietly, scoring a goal off a Kimberly Slade corner kick with just under 15 minutes to play. But the Panthers’ defense regained its composure and held strong for the remainder of the game.
“It’s a good thing they didn’t wait any longer [to win a state title], I’m kind of old,” joked Franklin coach Tom Geysen, who’s been coach for almost three decades. “I’m just very proud of these girls. They deserved it.”