June 18--BOSTON -- The Needham girls lacrosse team prepared all season long for the big moment.
And that big moment came on the biggest of stages on Saturday.
So when the Rockets saw their five-goal second-half lead cut to just two in their Division 1 state championship game with Longmeadow, Needham knew what it had to do to hold on.
Even if the adrenaline kick hit the Rockets a little harder than expected.
Big stops from Needham senior goaltender Liz Vallatini, and the Rockets defense in the final five minutes, as well as a goal from sophomore Maeve Barker with 1:28 left in regulation helped the Rockets hold on for an 8-5 victory over Longmeadow at Boston University's Nickerson Field.
Needham finishes the season with a 23-3 record and its first state championship since 2002.
"We've practiced it, we've worked on it," Needham coach Beth O'Brien said of holding onto a lead in the final minutes. "We've said 'We trust the ball in your hands, just don't panic'. Again its about that mental game that we've talked about, being mentally tough and being able to say 'Listen, we're here for a reason and if we just keep our heads on our shoulders and if we stick to our plan we're going to get out of this'.
"And they did that," O'Brien said. "They did a phenomenal job down the stretch."
Down the stretch, Needham players gripped their sticks a little tighter than they would've liked after a Barker goal with 22:07 left made it a 7-2 Needham advantage.
That's because Longmeadow wouldn't lay down as scores from Kay Conway, Allison Tetreault and Ilana Kofman cut the Rockets' lead to two goals with 9:36 remaining in the game.
From there, momentum seesawed back and forth with ball possession swinging the pendulum.
Following a Longmeadow timeout with 4:38 left, as the Lancers had just taken possession away from Needham, O'Brien told her team in a huddle to "stay the course" if the Rockets wanted to thwart Longmeadow's comeback bid.
A save by Vallatini 31 seconds later, and then again with just over three minutes remaining, did just that.
And after those two big stops from Vallatini, Needham put the proverbial icing on the cake.
With Longmeadow leaving the net open in hopes of forcing a Needham turnover by double-and-triple teaming the ball, Barker (2 goals) streaked towards the goal and fired a score with 1:28 left to seal the first state title in 15 years for the Rockets.
"I think everyone's adrenaline started to get rushing," said Needham senior captain Sarah Conley, who had two goals to go along with two scores from sophomores Callie Hem and Barker. "Before Maeve scored, we were only up by two and I know Longmeadow has a very good team. They could've scored two goals easily in three minutes so I think we had to stay focused and every girl on the team played [hard] up to the last second, which was probably the key to our success."
Key to Needham's success on Saturday, and during the postseason, was the play of its defense.
In each of the Rockets' five playoff wins, Needham didn't allow a single team to score in double digits while the Rockets themselves notched 10 or more goals in each win.
And in Needham's 26 total games, the Rockets allowed a team to score in double digits just twice.
"We've leaned on [the defense] pretty heavily all year," O'Brien said. "Not only in this game but [in the win over Notre Dame Academy (Hingham) in the Division 1 South sectional], the same thing making huge stops. Liz always coming up with a few good stops, the defense really, really has been key to us this year."
This year has been a challenging one for O'Brien, who lost her husband, Joe, to cancer in December.
Before the season started, Needham dedicated its season to Joe and put his initials on its shirts and also printed out stickers in his honor.
So returning to 609 Webster Street in Needham with a championship trophy holds more than just one special meaning for this group of girls.
"This whole season we were working [towards] this because Beth's never won a state title," Needham senior captain Caroline Walsh said. "So we just knew this would be so sweet for her this year and just winning the South sectional, we knew if we won that we had to go all the way."
"For me it's obviously such a great thing after such a tough year but more importantly I wanted it for these kids," O'Brien said. "And that's all I cared about and I couldn't be happier because they truly earned it both on and off the field."
Tommy Cassell can be reached at 508-626-4405 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tommycassell44.
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