PROVIDENCE — Tolman High head coach Bel Pereira received the astonishingly bad news at about 2:30 p.m., Monday, about 90 minutes before his Tigers would battle top-seeded Middletown in the R.I. Division III Tour-nament's championship game at Rhode Island College.
That's when he learned two of his top three goal producers and forwards/midfielders, senior Nicole Bedoya and sophomore Suzette Hernandez, wouldn't be able to play. Bedoya had been in a car accident on Saturday night, and Hernandez continued to suffer symptoms of a concussion.
“I was deflated,” he sighed after the Islanders dominated a 5-0 triumph over sixth-seeded Tolman before approximately 250 fans late Monday afternoon. “I was just trying to keep the girls' spirits up. I told them if we can beat the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds (in West Warwick and North Providence), then we could beat the first seed.
“It just didn't work out that way.”
With the victory, Middletown not only captured its fourth state championship since 2001 and first since 2004, but also closed its campaign with a phenomenal 14-1-2 record. The Tigers, on the other hand, finished at 7-9 overall.
Amazingly, just three weeks ago, Pereira's bunch played superbly in a 4-3 defeat to these same Islanders at the McKinnon-Alves Complex, and the veteran mentor called that, at the time, “a moral victory.”
Hernandez had notched a hat trick in that Division III-A tilt; without her and Bedoya in the state final, the Tigers had little chance.
Seconds after the head official delivered the three sharp whistles indicating game's end, sophomore defender McKenzie Hofknecht walked off the turf with her arm around weeping senior midfielder Michaela Sinotte.
Not long after, senior goalkeeper Shelby Hofknecht sat on the team bench, wiping off tears with the top of her jersey, despite a 21-save performance.
“There are a lot of other teams around the state who wish they were in your place,” Pereira said to his club. “You played with everything you had. You left everything you had on the field, and I'm proud of you all.”
Pure and simple, the Islanders played a more physical style, and also were a step ahead of the Tigers all afternoon.
“We controlled the midfield; that was the key,” noted Middletown head coach Dave Kolator after his girls had chased him all over the field to issue him a congratulatory shower with their water bucket.
“When we watched Tolman play West Warwick in the semifinal, we noticed their midfielders were playing way back, and they had three forwards up front, so there was a huge void in the middle. We figured if we could exploit that, we'd control the game.
“The reason we won most of the 50-50 balls was we have a lot of speed on our side,” he added. “We've worked on ball control from the very beginning, since the season started, and that was another key.”
The elder Hofknecht had made three saves in the first 10 minutes, but senior tri-captain Chelsea Dowler (whom Kolator indicated would've been the Tourney MVP had one been selected) gave her squad a 1-0 advantage just 11:11 into the contest.
On the play, fellow senior tri-captain Kenleigh Hebel fed Dowler in front of the penalty box, then spun away from a defender and ripped a 22-yard shot just inside the left post.
A mere 1:44 later, after Hebel knocked a left-side corner kick toward the middle of the box, the ball bounced a few times before freshman Riley Turcotte gained possession and tucked it inside the left post.
And, 7:34 after that, another freshman, Isabella Maguire, scored after another Hebel corner kick. With that unassisted tally, the Islanders had grabbed a comfortable 3-0 lead.
The Tigers' lone opportunity came with 12:58 remaining before intermission; that's when senior Amber Duhamel fired a 45-yard direct kick at Middletown senior goalie Kaitlin Griffith, but it sailed wide right.
It looked as though the Islanders might go into the break up, 5-0, after Dowler drilled a low, curving 30-yard direct kick at Shelby Hofknecht, but the latter made a crouching save.
All told, Kolator's crew outshot the Tigers 16-5 in that initial session, and – at halftime – Pereira offered his troops some tips as how to gain some momentum.
It showed, as junior midfielder Deandra Flynn drove an attempt at net six minutes into the final half. Griffith came out to cut down the angle, but the shot missed to the right.
Dowler notched her second when freshman Alisa Benson poked a left-to-right crossing pass to her. Wide open, Dowler unleashed a shot from outside the right post, and it tickled the netting for the 4-0 cushion. The Islanders notched their last tally when Hebel roped perhaps a 10-yard try at Hofknecht, who made the initial save, but Griffith – who had been pulled out of the goal – tapped it home with 9:53 remaining.
Tolman, however, did have four shots over the last 40 minutes, including a pair by Duhamel (the winner of the Tigers' Key Spirit Award for girls' soccer for her non-stop hustle and grit). In fact, despite the final score, Duhamel, freshman Cheyanne DosSantos and the younger Hofknecht played superlative defense.
On the Middletown side, senior tri-captain Riley Smith, sophomore Allegra Borges and Benson did the same.
“I wanted to control our defense, and hope that our forwards could outrun their defenders on through balls,” Pereira stated afterward. “I wanted to keep them off the scoreboard. They beat us, 6-1 and 4-3, during the regular season, but they beat us soundly (on Monday). They controlled the midfield and got to a lot more (loose) balls than we did.
“This team is built on determination, perseverance and a lot of heart, and these girls showed all of that and more in this game.”