Gilford senior Mollie Dignan battles in the midfield with Berlin's Chelsey Caron in the first half of the Eagles' 2-1 overtime loss in the Division III semifinals last week in Exeter. Jonathan Benton - Berlin Reporter. (click for larger version)
November 04, 2013EXETER – Rachel Blandford walked off the field solemnly, but she wasn't alone. The Gilford High School senior draped her left arm around goalkeeper and classmate Ashlyn Miller, and the duo were the last remaining players to reach the sideline.
After a season in which the Golden Eagles basically rewrote the history books at GHS, the lasting image of their 2013 season was that of a team bonded together. While third-seeded Berlin celebrated in front of the Gilford goal after putting home the game-winner with 11:44 left in overtime, Blandford and Miller joined their teammates by the bench, heartbroken but proud. It was quite a ride.
"I'm so proud of how far we've come," said Blandford afterwards. "Just how close we all got as a family (this year) – we're definitely a family."
That family huddled for one final team hug along the fence at Bill Ball Stadium on the campus of Exeter High School. The second-seeded Eagles finished the year with an outstanding 14-1-2 record, still never dropping a game in regulation, as the Mountaineers moved on to the state championship game against top-seeded Derryfield with a 2-1 overtime victory on Oct. 30. Berlin would hoist that state championship trophy four days later, dominating Derryfield in a 4-0 win.
"When you get to the Final Four, you want to win but you also have to have fun," began Gilford coach Dave Rogacki. "But this team improved so much over the last few years. And we really emphasized being a family, having team feeds and everything."
For the nine seniors on the Gilford roster, the transformation from a team that didn't make the postseason as freshmen to one goal shy of a state finals appearance was remarkable.
"Our goal was the Final Four at the beginning of the season so getting here, and then scoring and being right in this game is icing on the cake," Blandford said. "We showed we can definitely play at this level."
It was a wild, back and forth game all evening long. The Gilford parent section, which might as well use these games as cardio thanks to all the miles put in walking up and down the sidelines, spent plenty of time on both ends of the field. The Eagles struck first, getting off to a fast start that they hoped would propel them to victory. Just 3:51 into the first half, junior Alyssa Hamberger scored on a rebound from a Marissa Kelleher shot, and Gilford took a 1-0 advantage.
But the Mountaineers, who had just visited Gilford two weeks earlier in a 2-2 draw, tied the game just 7:23 later, when Jensyn Dandeneau also scored on a rebound to make it a 1-1 game. The teams wound up taking that tie into intermission, and both teams had identical statistics of three shots and three penalty corners in the opening half.
"Defensively, Gilford does a great job and they took away the sidelines very well," admitted Berlin coach Nicole Arguin. "We just told the girls not to panic after that first goal and they settled down and started to play their game much better."
The Eagles dodged some bullets in the second half, especially in the early going. Just six minutes into the second frame, the Mountaineers earned four consecutive penalty corners, putting the pressure on Miller in net. But the senior stood tall, making some key saves and the defense led by Kayla Orton, Emily Wernig and Catherine Buckley managed to clear the zone.
"Berlin was much more aggressive than we were but we stayed right with them," Rogacki said.
Senior Becky Zakorchemny set up Gilford's best scoring opportunity of the second half, as she saved a ball right on the goal line with 14:40 remaining, and fed younger sister Laura Zakorchemny in front. Laura's shot on net was kicked aside by Berlin goalkeeper Julie Downs, and the Eagles were unable to pounce on the rebound.
After 60 minutes of even action, the teams moved to a 7 on 7 overtime period. Rogacki went with Miller, Orton, Blandford, Kelleher, Mollie Dignan, Kelsey Buckley and Becky Zakorchemny as his seven players, and the squad threatened quickly. But after moving into transition, Berlin was awarded the all important first penalty corner of the extra session, and the Mountaineers capitalized.
Senior Erika Gendron set up shop right on the doorstep in front of Miller, and the perfectly-executed corner landed on her stick for an easy point-blank goal with 11:44 remaining, sending Berlin through to the finals and ending Gilford's magical season in the blink of an eye.
"All we did at practice yesterday was 7 on 7 situations," said Arguin. "It's all about control when you get into that position. We were lucky we got that first corner and we took advantage."
Rogacki was impressed with Berlin's game-winner.
"That goal was perfect execution," he said. "Nothing you can really say about it. We just didn't get the ball past them in (overtime)."
And so came the difficult end to an unforgettable season. While the Eagles do graduate a large class of nine seniors, Rogacki knows the Class of 2014 has set his program up for continued success – on and off the field.
"Those seniors are really the reason we were able to move as far as we did in three years," the coach explained. "We're really going to miss them here."