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Raiders prevail in two OTs

CHICOPEE — It took two overtimes and a little good fortune but Athol High School is going to the finals of the Western Massachusetts Division III Girls’ Soccer Tournament.

Molly Cleveland scored the game-winner with 3:05 remaining in the second extra period, taking the ball off a funny bounce, getting behind the defenders and blasting the ball past Easthampton High School netminder Alyssa Fugiel to give the Red Raiders a 3-2 victory at Szot Park.

“Emily Casella flicked the ball off her head, it just took a couple of weird bounces, and I got on top of it.” said Cleveland.

Coach Tim Cleveland, Molly’s dad, elaborated a little: “It was just a lucky break, we had a lucky touch, Molly had a couple touches, thought maybe she should have shot it sooner, but you know, she got her left foot on it, and put it in the opposite side of the net, and we get the win.”

For 10th and final seed Athol High School, it would have been easy to just be happy to be in the semifinal round. But that’s not how the Raiders roll.

“It’s unbelievable,” said coach Cleveland. “These girls have worked so hard, so hard, they’re such a good team. They didn’t quit, and we just pressed, pressed, pressed. They wanted it.”

The Raiders looked poised to win in regulation, as the game was tied at 1-1 after the first, and they controlled play for most of the second, taking a 2-1 lead early when Olivia Smith (two goals) put one past Fugiel following an Athol corner.

“It felt real good. I was just trying to get my team up there, and help us out a little bit. I know we needed this and my team wanted this, so I played for them tonight.” said an overjoyed Smith.

Easthampton didn’t muster much offense in the second half, but they got it when it counted. Off a free kick, the ball bounced chaotically in front of the Raiders net and, finally, Easthampton’s Willow Ross put it past Raiders keeper Stephanie Putnam, tying the score at 2 and sending it into overtime.

The first overtime saw Athol on the defensive virtually throughout, with Easthampton mounting some fierce rushes. Just 45 seconds in, Putnam had to rush out of the net to cover the ball just before the charging Eagles could get a foot on it.

The Raiders survived the storm, however, and set up the Cinderella ending.

The first half was played fairly tentatively by both sides for the first 10 minutes, but things heated up quite quickly after that. The Eagles scored the first goal of the contest when a Raider defender whiffed while trying to clear the ball, and Maddi Grabowski — off a pass from Ross — came charging in to bang the ball past Putnam.

The Raiders got the equalizer when Smith took a pass from Cleveland and buried it past Fugiel.

“That first goal felt amazing. I was getting nervous. It felt great to get that off my shoulders.” said Smith, who also narrowly missed a third goal in the second half. “Almost had a third, there. My intent was to cross the ball, not shoot, but it almost caught that corner, but that’s all right.”

Everything was all right for the Raiders at the end of the night, but make no mistake about it: they know their work is not done. They have every intention of playing the same way that got them this far on Saturday at 11 a.m., when they try to capture the WMass title against Granby High School.

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