PAWTUCKET — Under normal circumstances, Tolman High veteran head coach Bel Pereira would be both irked and disappointed after his girls suffered a defeat, but that was hardly the case after the Tigers fell to Middletown, 4-3, in a Division III-A tilt on Wednesday night.
“If we had tied them, that certainly would've been a moral victory,” Pereira stated later. “We played probably the best team in all of Division III, and it was a great effort – actually, an outstanding effort – by the girls.
“We were just a goal short,” he added. “I'm not pleased that we lost, but I'm happy with the way the game went. The girls gave everything they had from start to finish, and it was definitely exciting. This was probably the best game we've played all season, and the players should be commended for that.”
In the end, the Islanders broke a 3-3 deadlock with about 90 seconds left in regulation to improve to 11-1-2. That's when freshman Riley Turcotte battled for a loose ball just inside the box at the 18, spun and fired a shot just inside the left post – and past a diving senior goalkeeper Shelby Hofnecht.
With that tally, Tolman dropped to 5-8-0 overall and in league action.
Still, the good news for Pereira and Co.: His Tigers already have clinched a bid to the state D-III tourney, and will try to inch closer to a .500 regular-season mark when it travels to West Warwick for a contest at 4 p.m., Friday.
“If we play the same way when we reach the playoffs, we'll go a long way,” Pereira grinned.
Despite the win, Middletown mentor Dave Kolator seemed rather disconsolate afterward – and he had every reason.
With about seven minutes left in the final session, senior tri-captain Riley Smith, who had exhibited superb defense throughout, had to be carried off the field with an apparent right leg injury. After Turcotte had registered the game-clincher, with not quite a minute left, senior midfielder Ali Borges went down with what seemed to be a hurt right shoulder.
“We had a nurse check out Ali, and she didn't feel it was dislocated,” Kolator said later. “With Riley (Smith), that seems to be a more serious injury; she doesn't have any feeling past her ankle, so we're going to have her checked out, too. It's the wrong time of year to have that happen (with post-season action looming).
“I thought the game was a bit too physical, especially in the second half,” he continued. “Tolman's a good team. It has speed and their girls marked up well, but I thought it was too physical.”
Responded Pereira: “We do play a physical style; our motto has always been to play fair and physical. We hustled to every loose ball and try to win it. We've got some girls who go after it and they're not afraid. I've always chosen to play an aggressive style of soccer.
“In fact, the last time we played them, one of our best midfielders, and captains, (senior Jazmine Almeida) got hurt. She suffered a torn left ACL, and she's out for the rest of the season.”
The Tigers made the most out of their Senior Night, or last regular-season home tilt, from the outset, though luck played a role. Just two minutes into the game, sophomore Suzette Hernandez rushed down the right side after a through ball from senior Ashley Clark, somehow got past a defender and knocked a crossing pass to a teammate.
Middletown junior defender Liza Wauters mistakenly poked it into her own net, and Hernandez got credit for the tally.
The Islanders didn't need much time to tie it. In the fourth minute, Turcotte sent a nice right-to-left feed to sophomore Taylor George, stationed deep inside the box, and she tucked it in.
Only four minutes later, Tolman regained the lead. Hernandez sprinted down the right side, dribbled once and fired a shot at junior Kaitlyn Griffith, who had come out of the net to cut down the angle. The two collided, the ball flew into the air then bounced untouched over the goal line.
That's when Middletown began to dominate. In approximately the 14th minute, Turcotte fielded a throw-in just inside the left portion of the box and drilled a try at Hofknecht, but she snagged the save. Two minutes after, senior tri-captain Kenleigh Hebel sent her second corner kick in 30 seconds from the left toward the net, but Hofknecht leaped and cradled the ball; and, in the 22nd, senior Chelsea Dowler, standing near the right post, juked a defender and rifled a shot at Hofknecht, who sprawled for the save.
Dowler, however, made the most of her next attempt five minutes later. George delivered a stellar through pass down the right side at her teammate, Dowler gained possession and – with Hofknecht out of the goal – drove it home.
The Islanders cushioned its lead to 3-2 with 5:39 left before the break; that's when George poked a left-to-right pass to Turcotte in the middle of the box, and, with a defender draped on her, she drilled it past Hofknecht.
At intermission, the Tigers walked arm-in-arm to the other side of the field to greet family members and friends, and the underclassmen gave the seniors a “goody bag” filled with presents and cards. Those were issued as tokens of appreciation for their hard work through their interscholastic careers.
Tolman rewarded its viewers at the 9:13 mark of the final stanza. Clark rifled a solid through ball to Hernandez, who somehow got past a defender and shot it while falling. The attempt hit the left post and caromed into the netting, and – with Hernandez' hat trick – the Tigers had tied the previously near-invincible Islanders.
It looked like Pereira's bunch would break the 3-3 deadlock two minutes later, when junior Maria Vergara drove a wicked 24-yard liner at net; it missed the left post by, perhaps, a foot.
Middletown immediately began to surge, with Dowler and George having stellar opportunities to convert but Hofknecht blocking both.
During the 35th minute, Dowler roped a 25-yarder at the cage, but missed the left post by inches. Not quite 30 seconds later, junior Sundrene Kennedy whacked a line drive from 10 yards further out, but that bounced off the crossbar. A minute after, Turcotte did the same, though it seemingly hit the netting.
Despite Kolator's statements otherwise, officials indicated the ball hadn't penetrated the goal.
When Turcotte made good on her last try, Middletown celebrated – albeit mildly – the triumph.
All told, Griffith finished with eight saves, while Hofknecht recorded a stellar 18.
“I have to give a lot of credit to my defense; they kept us in the game,” noted Pereira, who claimed seniors Amber Duhamel, Jesse Calisi and Genesis Ramirez and sophomore McKenzie Hofknecht played their hearts out. “They went after Middletown's top forwards, gained possession of loose balls and drove them downfield.
“And Shelby was terrific in goal. Like I said, if we play this way in the tournament, we could go far.”