Souhegan advances on road to first championship

AMHERST – On Monday afternoon, the host Souhegan field hockey squad advanced its hunt for its program’s first state championship since 2007 with an impressive 2-0 shutout of visiting Pelham in Division II quarterfinal-round tournament play.

The fourth-ranked locals busted a 0-0 deadlock with their fifth-seeded opponents thanks to a pair of second half goals from junior sharpshooter Juliette Rafuse. Senior goalie Ellie Byram turned aside five Pelham shots in making her contribution to a victory which sent the Sabers into the semifinals later this week.

Souhegan controlled much of play, pelting the Pelham net with some nine shots. But the Pythons enjoyed an 8-5 advantage in penalty corners and pushing the Saber defense to react. And react the locals did.

“If you forget about the first 30 seconds, I thought we took over play and controlled play,” said victorious coach Kelli Braley.

Both the Sabers and Pythons enjoyed truly excellent regular seasons, with Souhegan finishing up with a 12-2 record after starting out at a glittering 10-0 before going a very average 2-2 in its final four matches.

Pelham finished up at 11-3 but was more than a little warm going into the tournament, having won eight of its last nine contests.

The two contingents initially met up just three matches into the 2019 regular season in Amherst, with the host Sabers squeaking out a 1-0 win. So the quarterfinal-round tournament meeting had to be seen as a toss-up, with the loser packing its uniforms up in moth balls and the victor moving on to a semifinal battle with the winner of the Monday quarterfinal contest between top-seeded Derryfield and number eight Sanborn.

The defending state champs from Derryfield wound up hammering Sanborn by a 6-0 tally in their tourney contest while Souhegan was taking care of business at home, so the Sabers and Derryfield will play in the semis at Exeter High School this coming Thursday, Halloween night.

The Sabers put four shots on the Pelham net and its goalie Hailey Gilbert during the first 30 minutes of their quarterfinal match, with the best scoring opportunity coming in the form of a penalty stroke by sophomore Caroline Mastergeorge with 3:40 to go in the half. The Saber shooter attempted to beat Gilbert inside the left post of the net but shot wide, and the match ultimately remained scoreless at halftime.

Unconcerned at the break, Sabers’ coach Braley exhorted her players to keep playing as they had in the first period.

“I thought if we continued to control play the way we had in the first half it would fall in, and it did,” said the coach.

The only goal which Souhegan would wind up needing to move on to the semifinals went in just 2:59 into half number two off of the stick of Rafuse with plenty of zing on a stinging backhander which a Pelham defender tried, in vain, to keep out of the net at the last second.

The skilled junior very nearly made it a 2-0 game 16 minutes later on a sizzling blast near the left post of the Pelham cage, but Pythons’ goalie Gilbert made the big stop. However, Rafuse did in fact pot her second goal of the day with precisely a minute left to play when she slapped home a blistering shot from the high slot in front of the opposing cage. And with just 60 seconds to go, a two-goal deficit was too much for Pelham to surmount.

Juliette has unbelievable stick skills, and she has been a real force for us this season,” said coach Braley of Rafuse, who moved up to an offensive spot this season after starring on the Sabers’ defense last fall.