Cheverus girls hold on for dear life, reach pinnacle
PORTLAND—The Cheverus girls' lacrosse team needed every single one of the 3,000 seconds that made up Saturday's Class A state game to achieve something nearly a decade in the making.
A coveted championship.
Facing Massabesic in a contest that was everything it was hyped up to be and more, the Stags, understandably, started nervously and were down most of the first half, before they began to hold on to the ball.
A free position goal from junior scoring specialist Meredith Willard gave Cheverus its first lead, 4-3, late in the half, but the spirited Mustangs battled back and forged a 4-4 deadlock at the break.
The first 25 minutes solved little and the next 25 were more of the same.
Massabesic went up, 6-5, with 16:08 to go, but an unlikely source, Stags sophomore MaryKate Walsh, tied the game and with 12:54 left, Willard struck again, unassisted, and Cheverus was ahead to stay.
The Stags even stretched their lead to two goals, 8-6, when Willard scored with 2:34 remaining, but they couldn't slam the door.
After a turnover, the Mustangs drew within one on a goal with just under a minute to play and even though Cheverus junior Alex Logan won yet another draw, the Stags couldn't run out the clock and Massabesic had one final chance to tie and force overtime.
While the Stags are known for their offense, it was a defensive player who saved the day, as senior Emily Rodrigue made the biggest play in program history, knocking the ball away from a Mustangs attacker with 3.8 seconds to go, and Cheverus held on to become champion for the first time, 8-7.
Willard led all scorers with four goals, Logan added two, as well as winning 10 draws and registering a game-high nine ground balls, as the Stags wound up 13-3 and ended the Mustangs' run at 12-4.
"This was the experience of a lifetime," Willard said. "It means a lot. I can't even describe the feeling. It was a great game. It was very intense. Every second, you had to be on your toes."
After successive losses in the regional final, Cheverus felt that 2013 would be its year and it didn't disappoint.
The Stags dropped a marathon 7-6 (four overtime) decision to visiting Massabesic to start the year, then put it all together for a program-best eight game win streak, downing host McAuley (18-5), host Portland (9-7), visiting Deering (14-1), visiting Marshwood (13-10), host Scarborough (9-7, in OT), visiting Windham (15-6), host North Yarmouth Academy (17-6) and host Kennebunk (13-6) before finally suffering a loss, 5-3, at Thornton Academy. Cheverus got right back in the win column, holding off visiting Gorham, 14-12, but closed with an 11-5 home loss to powerhouse Waynflete, the eventual repeat Class B champion, to wind up 9-3 and second behind Messalonskee in the Eastern A Heals.
The Stags downed No. 7 Mt. Ararat, 15-2, in the quarterfinals and overcame a sluggish start to defeat No. 6 Windham, 15-8, in the semifinals, played at Fitzpatrick Stadium. Cheverus then got a huge break as Messalonskee was handed its first loss, by Cony, allowing the Stags to host the regional final Wednesday (again at Fitzy after rain made Cheverus' field unplayable). The Stags left no doubt this time, never trailing en route to a 16-6 victory, as junior Elyse Caiazzo had six goals, allowing the Stags to punch a state game ticket for the first time.
Massabesic, which won the Class A title way back in 2007 (9-7, over Brunswick), was one of several teams in the mix this spring and saved its best for last.
The Mustangs opened with the marathon four OT win at Cheverus. After a 10-9 loss at Greely, they handled visiting McAuley (14-1) and prevailed at Marshwood (7-6), before losing at home to Scarborough (10-6). Two more wins (11-8 at Gorham and 14-3 over visiting NYA) followed, but on May 14, Massabesic lost at home to Kennebunk (8-7). It didn't fall again, beating host Thornton Academy (12-2) and host Bonny Eagle (12-1), visiting Sanford (19-1) and Westbrook (15-1) to go 9-3 and earn the No. 2 seed in Western A.
The Mustangs got through the region with victories over No. 7 South Portland (14-5), No. 3 Marshwood (7-5) and fourth-ranked Kennebunk (7-6).
In the first meeting this season, Massabesic got the winner from junior Jackie Guillemette in the fourth overtime period, negating four goals from Willard.
The teams' lone prior playoff meeting resulted in a 10-9 Cheverus victory in the 2008 quarterfinals.
Saturday, the Stags made history, joining the school's cross country and hockey squads as the lone state champions of their gender.
In the early going, Cheverus got plenty of possession, but its nerves were evident and the Stags committed six turnovers, while only managing one shot.
Massabesic, meanwhile, grabbed the lead when senior Heather Everett scored her first goal, on a free position, with 17:34 to play in the first half.
Five minutes later, Everett doubled the lead, scoring unassisted, and Cheverus coach Jamie Chamberlain called timeout.
It worked, as the Stags won the ensuing draw and with 9:40 to play before halftime, Willard took a pass from Caiazzo and finished to get her team on the board.
"There wasn't a player on either team who had been in a state final and you could see that," Chamberlain said. "We told them to take a deep breath, go out and play and have more movement. After that, we got in more of a rhythm, which got us going offensively."
After Mustangs junior Alexis Foglio received a yellow card, Logan tied the score man-up with 8:42 left, with a free position shot.
"We had to settle down," Logan said. "We had a rocky start. When you're in a venue like this, your nerves take over. Our shots were high. We made mistakes. We did our best to fix it, calm down and play our game. In the end, that's what we did. We wanted to minimize turnovers and play our game."
Massabesic retook the lead, 3-2, as sophomore Karlie Pike took a pass from senior Haley Binette and shot past Cheverus sophomore goalie Hope Correia.
Again, the Stags roared back and tied the score on an unassisted tally from Logan with 5:02 to go.
Willard's free position goal gave Cheverus its first lead, 4-3 with 3:26 left.
"We were a little nervous, which is expected," Willard said. "Their defense was great. We had to adjust and find our comfort zone, then we played our game."
Just when it appeared the Stags would take an advantage to the break, the Mustangs bounced back and tied the score late when Binette scored unassisted.
In the first 25 minutes, Logan won six of nine draws, Cheverus had a 23-14 ground ball advantage and a slight edge in shots. The Stags managed to shake off 11 turnovers to be even heading for the second half.
Logan won the draw to start the second half, the ball came to sophomore Abby Biegel and Biegel beat senior Krystal Forrester to give Cheverus a 5-4 lead.
Massabesic didn't buckle, however, and drew even just over a minute later as Everett scored on a free position.
After Forrester twice denied Caiazzo and Correia turned aside two shots from Guillemette, the Mustangs took what proved to be their final lead, 6-5, when Everett scored again on a free position with 16:08 to go.
Then, it was the Stags' turn to rally.
Caiazzo set up Walsh with 14:19 to play and Walsh beat Forrester to make it a brand new ballgame, 6-6.
With 12:54 left, Willard blew past a hapless defender and just like that, the Stags were ahead to stay, 7-6.
"I knew we had to score, but we also had to maintain possession," Willard said. "I heard Alex say,' Go! Meredith! Go!.' I trusted her and I went."
"Meredith's so fast," Logan said. "She's like a cheetah. I just said, 'Go!,' and she went."
The Cheverus defense preserved the lead, as an Everett shot sailed high and Correia denied sophomore MacKenzie Kidder.
The Stags then drained over five minutes before eventually pushing the lead to two.
After three minutes, Walsh looked to extend the lead, but was stopped by Forrester. Cheverus almost turned the ball over, but Willard came up with a ground ball. Then, the ball came to Caiazzo and Caiazzo got it back to Willard, who shot past Forrester for a seemingly safe 8-6 advantage with just 2:34 to play.
"That was a great pass by Elyse," Willard said. "She did a great job keeping possession. I was in the perfect place at the perfect time."
"Since freshman year, they know where the other person is and they can just read each other," Chamberlain said. "We take what the defense gives us. Massabesic has an excellent defense. We knew we had to be on our game."
The Stags had milked 5:33 off the clock and when Logan won yet another draw, they seemed primed to finish it off, but Cheverus turned the ball over, the Mustangs quickly transitioned to offense and with 57.3 seconds to play, senior Alyssa Gilman beat Correia to suddenly make it an 8-7 contest.
Chamberlain used his final timeout, stressing the importance of winning the draw.
"I told Alex to go get one for us," Chamberlain said. "She's been huge for us. It's a huge advantage to get that possession."
Logan did that very thing as senior Staci Swallow came up with a ground ball, but the Stags couldn't simply run out the clock.
No, they had to give their followers palpitations and gray hair instead.
Sure enough, the Mustangs forced a turnover and as time grew thin, raced into the offensive zone.
As the clock struck 5 seconds, the ball came to Pike and she appeared to have an open lane to what could have been the overtime-forcing tally, but Rodrigue came from nowhere to save the day.
Rodrigue knocked the ball away and just like that, Massabesic's last, best chance had slipped away.
"I started backpedalling," Rodrigue said. "I knew I had to do something. When she got the pass, I knew I had to contain her. As soon as she turned the corner, I knew I had to either check her and maybe get the call or maybe not. If she got the free position, maybe she'd score, but I knew I had to take the risk."
"Emily deserves all the credit," Logan said. "Defense doesn't get enough credit, but she saved the game for us."
"The defense saved us," Willard said. "Emily's amazing. She came up when we needed her. There was a lot of pressure."
"Emily made an awesome play," Chamberlain added. "It really was a game-saver. She's only in her second year of playing lacrosse. She's a heady, smart player. We've relied on that all year from her and the rest of our defense."
At 1:56 p.m., at the game clock wound to zero, Cheverus erupted in a joyous celebration nearly a decade in the making.
"It's just so great," Logan said. "I came up watching my Dad coach Brunswick, seeing Brunswick come to the state final. I just imagined myself here. It's so surreal to be here. I just can't believe it yet. I think we knew coming in that this game would be unlike any game we've played in the playoffs. We knew Massabesic was a really good team. Coming into the season, we knew we had athletic, returning players who would make an impact.
"I think the Scarborough win was when I thought states was a possibility. We had girls go to the field hockey regional final and lose, so they were hungry. We had faith in our teammates and trusted each other. We have great chemistry. A lot of teams can't say that. We don't get angry at each other and don't blame each other. That's been big for us."
"It was scary," Rodrigue said. "Massabesic's an incredible team. It was an honor to play them in this game. These were the two teams who deserved to be in this game. We showed our character. We didn't get down at beginning. We pulled together and really executed. It's incredible. This is what this team wanted and deserved. We worked since (the first day of practice March 25) for this moment. There's not a better group of people to celebrate this and win it together. I'll never forget this team. Emotionally, physically, as a team, we had incredible growth. We hadn't worked on our fastbreak defense, but since that game, that's what we've focused on defense. I think it was a big difference today."
"We knew it would be tooth and nail, down to the wire," Chamberlain added. "No lead is ever safe against them. The eighth goal gave our defense a little breathing room. Credit to (Massabesic), they didn't give up. They forced turnovers and went down and took advantage and put pressure on us until the end.
"We had a good game with Portland. We handled their pressure. Marshwood is a quality team. We handled them and had a good game. We had confidence and we took that to Scarborough and away we went. Every year, each team has been a little bit different, not having a feeder system. We have great kids, athletic and smart, who come here. What they lack in skill, they make up for in heart. They go after you for the whole game. They don't give up. Our girls didn't hang their heads."
The Stags' offense wasn't quite as prolific as it was in the regional playoff run, but it proved to be just enough as Willard had a team-high four goals, Logan scored twice and Biegel and Walsh both tickled the twine once. Caiazzo was held in check, but undaunted, set up teammates on three different occasions to register assists. Correia only made four saves, but each was critical.
Logan, a deserving All-American for her ability to do a little of everything, won 10 of 17 draws and led Cheverus in ground balls with nine (Caiazzo had eight, Willard seven and Biegel and Correia five each, as the Stags had a 45-24 advantage).
Cheverus committed 20 turnovers (many of them early in the contest), but forced 19. The Stags and Mustangs both had 13 shots (Cheverus had a 12-11 edge in shots on cage).
Of everyone, perhaps Stags assistant coach Mallory Pelkey had the most appreciation of just how far the program had come.
"Mallory was on that first team and she's seen our growth," Rodrigue said. "We barely made the playoffs a few years ago. The past few years, we believe in ourselves and our coaches. It goes to show the types of people and athletes who come to Cheverus."
"You guide the kids and help and teach them, but at a certain point, they have to go off on their own and do it," Chamberlain said. "You support them, but it's fun to see them do it. It's fun to be able to be a spectator in some sense and enjoy it as much as possible."
Massabesic was paced by Everett's four goals. Binette, Gilman and Pike all scored once. Binette also had an assist. Forrester made four saves. Everett led the team with six ground balls.
How about an encore?
Cheverus parts with seniors Laura Peabody-Harrington, Darby Rawcliffe, Rodrigue and Swallow.
"Laura was a four-year player for us and I'm so excited for her," Chamberlain said. "Emily is a veteran. Staci and Darby just went out and hustled and used their athleticism. I don't think they had any idea they'd be a state champion in lacrosse. They were an important part of it."
The Stags return standouts Caiazzo, Logan and Willard on offense, Correia in goal and several other pieces who could be integral to a repeat run in 2014.
The Stags welcome the challenge.
"The goal is to come back here," Logan said. "That would be amazing. I'm going to miss the seniors so much. It will be sad to watch them go, but hopefully they can come back here and watch us next year."
"I hope we can do the same thing next year," Willard said. "We have the potential to go far again."
"Every game in our conference is a close, competitive game," Chamberlain added. "It could have been any of a number of teams here today. I think it will be the same way next year too."