NEEDHAM, Mass. -- The comeback appeared to be all but complete.
For 45 minutes, Needham pestered, shadowed and double-teamed Notre Dame of Hingham's stud junior Charlotte Allard. However, with 4:38 remaining and the score deadlocked at nine, the preseason All-State midfielder was able to break free long enough to bury a laser into the top right corner of the net with a perfect overhead strike.
Correction: almost perfect. Allard was shown a yellow card for a dangerous follow-through, nullifying the go-ahead goal.
It was a penalty that would prove decisive, as the No. 2-ranked Rockets immediately capitalized off the man-up advantage courtesy of senior captain Audrey Walsh (4 goals) and held on to unseat the top-ranked Cougars, 11-10, beneath the fading sunset at Memorial Field on Saturday night.
“The [yellow card] changed everything,” said Needham attack Kailey Conry, who netted three goals and dished out two assists. “That moment could have easily turned momentum in their favor. We were fortunate that wasn’t the case and we were able to go down and get a great goal.”
A tense finish didn’t look to be in the cards early on.
Before 12 minutes could drip off the clock, the Rockets (7-0) were up 4-1 and threatening to add more. Four unanswered goals from Conry, Walsh, Katie Belval and Sarah Conley (2 goals) had them sitting pretty.
Following a timeout, Notre Dame (5-1) stopped the bleeding when senior attack Lexi Lenaghan (3 goals, 2 assists) found the back of the net. The two teams would trade goals the rest of the way, as Needham went into the break nursing a 6-4 lead.
But the story of the half had to be the lack of production from the usually dominant Allard.
“[Allard] is a great player. We knew for us to come out tonight and be on top, we had to be on her at all times,” said Belval, who marked Allard all game, limiting her to just two goals off free position shots. “Typically, I’m more involved offensively, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take for us to come out with a win over the number one team in the state.”
As the two teams changed sides, they seemed to swap mentalities as well.
The Cougars came out firing on all cylinders, with goals from Lenaghan and Camerin Rawson (2 goals) pulling the team within one. Finally, Allard lined up from the free position and made it count, evening things up at seven with 18:13 remaining.
Over the next 12 minutes, neither squad would blink. If Needham scored, Notre Dame would quickly answer back. If Rockets goalkeeper Elizabeth Vallantini (9 saves) came up big on one side, Cougars netminder Hanna Cooper (7 saves) would do her best imitation on the other end.
It was the kind of punch-for-punch game many expected from the state’s two top teams.
Unfortunately, a cruel twist of fate stole the show, transforming Notre Dame’s certain knockout blow into the dagger that halted the pulse to its perfect season.
“On the whole, Needham is a great team, but we just need to work harder,” said Cougars coach Meredith Frank. “This is a team that plays in our section if we’re not getting those three extra plays now, we need to work hard to make sure we’re getting them next time.”
Although the victory likely puts Needham in the driver’s seat the rest of the way, coach Beth O’Brien refuses to get too carried away.
“We’re thrilled with this win over a very good team, but that just means we have to work even harder the rest of the way,” she said. “I’m just so proud of my team. The defense had the offense’s back and the offense returned the favor. It was just a total team win.”