YARMOUTH— In a game that oozed postseason intensity and made us wish they could meet again, the host North Yarmouth Academy Panthers girls’ lacrosse team built a 5-0 first half lead and gave all but one goal of it back before holding off a furious charge from the Kennebunk Rams Thursday afternoon.
The Panthers, the defending Eastern B champions, got five goals from junior standout Courtney Dumont and several timely saves from senior goalie Abigail Moss to win 8-7, improve to 4-0 and hand the defending Western A champion Rams their first defeat in five games.
“It was basically anybody’s game,” said NYA coach Julia Littlefield. “It was nice to have that 5-0 lead. It was really exciting. I’m happy to not have to play them again. The Class A teams are getting really tough.”
Fight to the finish
The Panthers returned the majority of last year’s state runner-up squad and are viewed as having a great shot at winning the program’s first championship this spring.
NYA opened with a hard-fought 11-9 win at Massabesic, cruised past host Marshwood 12-1, then built a 9-2 halftime lead before holding off Scarborough 12-9 in its home opener Tuesday.
The Rams moved up to Class A in 2008 and promptly won a regional title before falling to Brunswick in the state game. This year’s team is led by standout Jamie Spang and has title hopes of its own.
Kennebunk entered the contest 4-0, beating Massabesic (11-6), Cape Elizabeth (7-6), Greely (15-5) and Cheverus (11-6).
The teams didn’t meet last year. The most recent meeting was May 25, 2006, a 13-7 Panthers’ victory. The Rams last beat NYA on May 23, 2003 (11-5).
Thursday, it took the Panthers a little while to get their offense going, but they would score five times in just over nine minutes to seize control.
Six minutes, 31 seconds into the contest, the hosts, despite being down a player, broke the ice when senior Rachel Darby took a pass from Dumont and beat Kennebunk senior goalie Taylor Vaughan.
Sophomore Lilly Wellenbach followed 41 seconds later with a free position goal and then Dumont came to life.
Her first goal was off a pass from senior Bugsy Clemetson. Dumont then whipped a free position blast past Vaughan and followed that up with a goal from senior Nicole Fuller to make it 5-0 with 9:14 to play in the first half.
The visitors finally broke through with 7:34 to go in the first when Spang (from senior Meghan Smith) beat Moss, who had made several stellar saves to that point.
With 5:47 left, Spang scored again unassisted to make it 5-2, but Dumont (from Wellenbach) answered to push the advantage back to four.
With 4:34 remaining, senior Maggie Lavoie scored unassisted for the Rams and with just under a minute to go, Spang scored unassisted to pull Kennebunk within two, 6-4, at the break.
Stats were relatively even in the first 25 minutes as NYA had a 6-5 edge in draws and a 13-10 advantage in shots. The Rams had 11 turnovers, one more than the Panthers, and both teams grabbed 13 ground balls. Moss made six first half saves, Vaughan stopped two shots.
There wouldn’t be much breathing room for the hosts throughout the second half.
With 19:28 to play, Kennebunk got within a goal when Spang scored unassisted. NYA bounced right back 15 seconds later, however, as Clemetson fed Dumont for her fifth goal of the contest.
With 15:04 remaining in regulation, Lavoie scored on a free position to pull the Rams to within 7-6, but just over a minute later, Wellenbach (from senior Lucy Gerrity) scored to pus the Panthers up 8-6.
NYA wouldn’t score again.
With 13:07 left, Smith scored on a free position and Kennebunk was back within a goal, 8-7.
Despite numerous chances to tie, the Rams were never able to pull even.
With 8:20 to play, sophomore Taylor Crowley shot wide on a free position. With 7:08 left, junior Brooke Worcester’s bid was just wide of the cage. Fifty seconds later, Smith was denied by Moss on a free position and with 5:43 to play, Worcester shot high.
Kennebunk wasn’t done yet.
With 4:16 to play, senior Jennifer Bryant had a great look at an open net, but her shot was just high. Then, with 2:49 to go, Bryant had a free position, but her shot was off and finally NYA was able to clear the zone.
With 1:59 left, Dumont had a chance to seal the deal on a free position, but Vaughan stepped up and made the save. A steal by Darby got the ball back and finally, the Panthers were able to run out on the clock and celebrate their hard-fought 8-7 victory.
“It was really nervewracking, but I trusted my defense,” said Moss. “I think we came out and surprised them a little bit and toward the end they picked it up. It was just a really good game.”
“We’ve had a trend with bad second halves,” said Dumont. “I think it’s because we get comfortable with our leads. We get overconfident. It’s a problem for us, but I think we’ll be able to get out of that habit soon.
“(Having to watch when Kennebunk had the ball) is one of the worst feelings. That’s my least favorite part of the game. All I could do is cheer my team on. We practiced (running out the clock) the last two practices. When I got the ball, I figured I could sprint for 30 seconds.”
NYA won nine of the 17 draws and had a 37-27 advantage on ground balls (Dumont led the Panthers with eight, while Bryant had a half-dozen for the Rams).
“I think our ground balls were a big advantage,” Littlefield said. “I feel we controlled the draw. We were patient. It got very interesting at the end. We knew it would be a very tough game. We went out strong. We had a good warmup with Scarborough. We were ready for Kennebunk. They’re good.”
Dumont had an assist to go along with her five goals. Moss finished with eight saves.
“Abigail made some big saves,” Littlefield said. “She’s one of the top goalies in the state. Courtney got early goals. That was important.”
The girls credited the other with developing their skills.
“Abigail’s huge for us,” Dumont said. “I don’t think there’s a better goalie than her. Sometimes she’ll stuff me in practice. It’s helped me grow. We have a great rivalry. We make each other better.”
“(Courtney) gets on my nerves a little bit at practice, but I know it’s good for me in the end,” said Moss. “It’s a confidence boost.”
Wellenbach added two goals and an assist. Darby had a goal, while Clemetson had two assists and Fuller and Gerrity added one each.
For Kennebunk (which had a 20-19 edge in shots and turned the ball over 25 times to 23 for NYA), Spang led the way with four goals. Lavoie added two and Smith had a goal and an assist. Vaughan stopped five shots.
In the end, the Rams just ran out of time.
“We just couldn’t put the ball in the cage,” said Kennebunk coach Annie Barker. “We weren’t going to roll over. It was a great comeback. We pointed out that if they were doubling down, then someone was open and a lane was open so go to goal with urgency. Defensively, we figured out who the cutter was. We knew Dumont would barrel through us. We were prepared for that.”
Kennebunk is in the midst of a brutal schedule stretch, with every tough game being played on the road. Tuesday, the Rams are at Yarmouth. Thursday, they visit longtime nemesis and defending Class B state champion Waynflete.
“We did it on the road last year in the playoffs,” said Barker. “I think we’re coming along. We played almost a complete game today. That’s our goal. I think we have the skills.”
NYA is home with Cape Elizabeth Monday and visits Deering Tuesday. The Panthers’ biggest tests loom later this month when they go to Yarmouth and Waynflete in a three-day stretch.
“It’s going to be tough, but I think if we play our game and continue to play as a team, we can do something great this season,” Moss said.
“We have a big head start on our season,” Dumont said. “I think we’re better early on than we were last year. Our starting lineup looks good. It’s just a matter of finishing strong.”
“It’s a tough, competitive season,” Littlefield added. “Much more than ever before. It’s a great group of girls. Win or lose, we want to enjoy the ride.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mhoffer
NYA senior Nicole Fuller tried to evade sophomore Molly Centori during the teams’ showdown Thursday afternoon. (Jason Veilleux photo)