Panthers lose overtime heartbreaker, 1-0

  • Pioneer’s Bradley Norwood (18) fights for a loose ball against Lenox’s Harrison Keator (14) in the second half Wednesday in Holyoke. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Pioneer goalkeeper Ryan Underwood leaps up for a save against Lenox in the second half Wednesday in Holyoke. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Pioneer’s Dana McRae (17) defends against Lenox’s Michael Abdalla (5) during the second half Wednesday in Holyoke. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Pioneer’s Joel Emberley (16) clears the ball against Lenox Wednesday in Holyoke. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Pioneer’s Dana McRae (17) dribbles downfield Wednesday in Holyoke, where his Panthers lost a 1-0 overtime heartbreaker in the WMass Division IV boys’ soccer semifinals at Roberts Field. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

HOLYOKE — For 80 minutes, Ryan Underwood stopped everything that came his way.

The Pioneer Valley Regional School junior goalkeeper slid to his right, dove to his left, leaped high; all the while keeping second-seeded and perennial power Lenox Memorial High School off the board.

But the hard-charging Millionaires finally cashed in during the first overtime, as Zachary Suffish scored the game’s lone goal on a perfectly-placed left-footed curl into the far corner of the net from 20 yards out. The tally, 4:32 into the first sudden-death overtime period, propelled Lenox to a 1-0 win over No. 6 Pioneer in the semifinals of the Western Massachusetts Division IV Boys’ Soccer Tournament Wednesday night at the Roberts Sports Complex.

“We knew what we could do and we knew it was going to be a good game. We played with a whole lot of heart and threw everything we had into this game,” said Underwood, who finished with 10 saves in an outstanding performance between the pipes.

Lenox (12-5-3) advanced to the WMass final, where it’ll play No. 4 Drury High School, a 2-1 winner over top-seeded Hopkins Academy in the other semifinal. The date and site for the finals is to be determined.

After breaking through and winning back-to-back tournament games to reach the Division IV semifinals, Pioneer turned back a barrage of pressure from Lenox Wednesday night. Underwood, who recorded 13 shutouts during the season, was aided by the work of a stout defensive unit that included Michael Menard, Jacob Quinn and Joel Emberley.

“The defense was amazing,” lauded Pioneer coach Don Fraser. “Ryan was unbelievable. We were pretty gassed by the end of it. But to get to the western Mass. semifinals and lose 1-0 in overtime … that’s an impressive accomplishment for this team that worked so hard this season.”

Despite playing a Lenox team that has reached the WMass finals in each of the past three years, Pioneer (15-3-1) came into the game ready. Despite being outshot by a 24-3 margin, the Panthers limited Lenox’s scoring chances to mostly long shots. Each Underwood save frustrated a Millionaires team that breezed into the semifinals with a 7-0 win over Pioneer Valley Christian Academy in the quarterfinals.

“We had a relaxed confidence about us,” explained Fraser. “We felt we belonged here. We have four seniors and the whole team really wanted to take this thing as far as they could.”

Lenox put together two solid scoring chances early in overtime before Suffish collected the ball just outside the 18-yard box midway through the 10-minute stanza. His goal sent Lenox through to a fourth consecutive WMass final.

“I don’t think I’ve seen our defense play better all year,” Underwood explained. “Our boys back there have been great all year, but they stepped it up.”

Lenox pressured Pioneer throughout, forcing the Panthers to make quick decisions with passes. That led to a lot of one-touches, taking Pioneer out of its midfield comfort zone.

“Ball-control is the strength of our game and we just didn’t have much of a chance to possess,” admitted Fraser. “That’s the best team we’ve ever played.”

Pioneer’s best scoring chance of the night came with just 6:40 remaining in regulation. Jordan Loughman broke down the left side and blasted a shot to the far post that went just wide.

Underwood made several key saves, including perhaps his best theft of the night with 14:30 remaining in regulation. Suffish put a point-blank shot on frame after a cross, but Underwood managed to hang on despite the close-range blast.

Despite the loss, winning 15 games, capturing a share of the McGrath Division regular-season title, and winning two postseason games to reach the semifinals reads as quite a 2017 campaign for the Panthers.

“It was insane,” said Underwood of his team’s success. “I never could’ve imagined before the season that we’d be here, in overtime of the semifinals. But as the season kept going on, we believed we could make it here. It was definitely the greatest season I’ve ever had, and to have this group of guys along for it was awesome.”