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Granby shuts down Athol, 1-0

WESTFIELD — Athol High School’s storybook playoff run came up just one page short.

The Red Raiders, playing in the finals of the Western Massachusetts Division III Girls Soccer Tournament for the first time in school history, gave a valiant effort but were defeated 1-0 by Granby High School Saturday at Westfield State University’s Alumni Field.

For the Raiders (10-8-4), it was the end of an improbable stretch, and reaching the tournament at all was an accomplishment in itself. Athol entered as the 10th and final seed and surprised everybody by rolling out three straight wins, knocking off No. 7 Taconic, No. 3 Mt. Greylock, and No.6 Easthampton.

Surprised everybody, that is, but themselves.

“The girls played their hearts out for the last four games, and if you want to go back that far, the last six games. They put everything they had into the effort,” said Athol head coach Tim Cleveland. Saturday, the Raiders started slowly, and were defending for the bulk of the first half. They were outshot by the Rams 7-1 in the period, and if not for the stellar goaltending of Stephanie Putnam, who had six saves in the frame, things could have gotten out of hand early.

“She made some big plays,” said Cleveland. “She’s been getting better all year long. She had a great, great tournament.”

Just when it looked like Athol would weather the first-half storm, the only ball to find the back of the net on the day came off the foot of Granby freshman Erin Mikalchus, the Rams’ leading scorer, who had challenged Putnam throughout the half.

With under a minute remaining, the fourth-seeded Rams (17-3-1) took a free kick from about 40 yards out. Senior Tara Mikalchus, Erin’s older sister, was able to field the kick and get the ball to Erin behind the Raider defenders and Putnam, and she blasted the ball into the wide-open net.

Athol, no stranger to playing from behind, looked like a completely different team at the start of the second half. The Raiders put intense pressure on the Rams out of the gate, and had their best chance of the day just 1:15 after the break when Athol’s Molly Cleveland took a corner. After some odd bounces, Emily Casella gained control, but could not square up the ball, and her shot went wide.

The Raiders maintained control of the ball throughout most of the half, and had a few more opportunities. Tanner Favreau, Olivia Smith and Cleveland all came close, but just couldn’t quite finish their plays.

A lot of that can be credited to Rams senior netminder Brittany Hauschild, who stopped all four Athol shots on goal, and made great decisions on when to play the ball aggressively and when to stay back.

Athol’s last gasp came with about five minutes remaining, when Cleveland took a free kick from the sideline about 20 yards out and cut the ball right on net. It sailed over the crossbar, giving Granby possession. The Rams were then able to take the ball into the Raiders end and run down the clock. Athol frantically tried to set up one more rush, but to no avail.

“You saw pretty clearly that we controlled a lot of the play in the second half,” said coach Cleveland. “If we had come out and played that way in the first half, who knows?”

For Cleveland, it certainly wasn’t the ending he was hoping for, but the loss couldn’t put a damper on what was a magical ride for the Raiders.

“I’m not disappointed. Our year was just outstanding. This was an outstanding effort by a great group of kids. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this season with this group of girls. Some years, as every coach knows, can be kind of taxing. This was not one of those years.”

The Raiders also have a lot to look forward to. They will graduate just three seniors, Smith, Liz Casella, and Maddison Truehart. While these players will certainly be missed, Athol will feature ten seniors next year, and it will be a veteran group that knows what it takes to make a run into November.

It’s also a group that can look upon this season as a beginning. After this run, the 2014 Red Raiders will certainly not be sneaking up on anyone.

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