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Can Athol finish off dream run againat Granby?

Athol High School wasn’t supposed to be playing for a Western Mass. soccer title this morning.

The Red Raiders needed a win or tie on the final day of the regular season just to get into the WMass Division III tournament. Then, when the seeds came out, Athol received the 10th and final seed in the bracket.

There was no way the Red Raiders — who were winless in their own league — were going to make back-to-back trips to the Berkshires in the first two rounds of play and come out of each victorious. And certainly, if by some miracle that happened, Athol was not going to beat an Easthampton team in the semifinals that it had gone 0-1-1 against in the regular season.

As improbable as it may have seemed, that’s exactly what the Red Raiders have done, and now the team sits just one win away from claiming the WMass Division III title. It takes its shot at history this morning at 11 at Westfield State University against fourth-seeded Granby High School.

It is kind of surreal when you look at it,” admitted head coach Tim Cleveland. “Just a week and a half ago we were looking at potentially being on the outside looking in. It’s kind of unbelievable.”

“You cant script this,” admitted Cleveland. “They’ve played so well when they needed to ... passing, moving the ball, getting in front and taking advantage of their opportunities. All of sudden it’s clicking.”

Athol (10-7-4) is very familiar with the Rams (16-3-1), having played them twice this season as part of the Pioneer North Division. Granby won both games 2-0, including the most recent on Oct. 18, but all that can go out the window after what Athol has been able to do this postseason.

Athol nearly missed out on the opportunity to even get a shot at a WMass title. Going into the final game of the regular season, the Red Raiders were going up against rival and tournament-bound Mahar Regional School needing at least one point to secure the berth. But as fate would have it, and in a precursor of things to come, a Molly Cleveland second-half goal helped the Red Raiders earn a 1-1 tie and punch their ticket to the postseason.

Once in, the Red Raiders still garnered little respect, getting seeded dead last among the 10 teams in Division III. Beginning with their first round matchup against seventh-seeded Taconic High School, the team from Tooltown has shown it has all the tools it needed to not only play with the best, but beat them. Against Taconic, Athol scored four times in the first half and went on to take a 4-2 victory. That sent them to the quarterfinals for a matchup against second-seeded Mount Greylock Regional High School where the two teams traded goals late in the first half but could get no further scoring, sending the game to penalty kicks where Athol would go on to win 2-1. Then, on Thursday against sixth-seeded Easthampton (the third team from the Pioneer North to make the semifinals), Molly Cleveland struck again for a big goal, this time with the game-winner in double overtime for a 3-2 victory.

Coach Cleveland attributed the offensive prowess to the players’ belief in their ability and managing to catch a few breaks.

“When we scored two minutes into the Taconic game, it was like a light bulb went on and we said, ‘hey we can do this,’” he said. “In the (Mount) Greylock game, they put two balls off crossbar, and those were the things we were doing earlier in the year. Now, those shots are going in the net.”

Now that Athol has made it this far, their confidence has reached a fever pitch.

“A lot of girls feel Granby is going to have their hands full,” said Coach Cleveland. “We’re working hard and playing very good soccer. If we can dictate the pace and play our game, we should be able to give ourselves a chance to win and we’ll have nothing to be disappointed about.”

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