EAST PROVIDENCE — The rematch of last fall’s Division III girls’ soccer title game between host East Providence High School and Johnston played in intermittent fog Saturday night, Oct. 14, didn’t disappoint, as the reigning league champion Townies fended off the visiting Panthers for the 3-2 victory.
E.P. striking star Grace Abrams potted a pair of goals in the opening five minutes of the game to put the locals on top early. Johnston got one back before intermission. Alyssa DeOliveira then scored what proved the game-winning tally for the Townies in the 61st minute. The Panthers made things interesting with another goal in the 66th, but E.P. keeper Mia Jackson made a couple of outstanding saves and the Townie defense did enough to thwart the visitors prior to the final whistle.
The sides, both undefeated entering the contest, played inarguably their most competitive game of the season to date. Prior, East Providence and Johnston had throttled each of their opponents to the tune of a combined 18-0-0 record. The Townies improved to 11-0-0 with the win while the Panthers fell to 8-1-0.
“That was an outstanding game. It went right down to the wire. It took all 80 minutes to get it done,” said EPHS head coach Angelo Pizzi.
Abrams’ two quick goals seemingly gave the Townies a comfortable perch, but Johnston responded and held the better of possession there after until the break, including Shelee Lastor’s goal to cut the Panthers’ deficit in half.
Up 2-1, East Providence came out of the break on the front foot to begin second period. As he did for almost all of the 2016 championship game, Pizzi moved Abrams to a defensive midfield spot to mark Johnston scoring ace Bianca Robbins, who entered the game leading the division and state with 46 goals.
In spite of not having Abrams at the top, the Townies were still able to foster an attack. Kayce Playe made a number of quality runs for the locals, and one, in the 45th minute, could have drawn a penalty but the referee ruled the diving challenge of a Johnston defender got more ball than leg.
Similar to the first half, Johnston found its footing about 10 minutes into the second, generating a couple of opportunities, though none were threatening.
The Townies regained the momentum around the 60th minute, eventually leading to a free kick just inside midfield. Ashley Dias’ boot skidded off the head of a Johnston defender towards goal. DeOliveira beat another Panther to the ball, one touched to gather then sent a shot on that slid past the Johnston keeper into far right corner.
“I was just thinking stay composed, put the ball in the corner of the net,” DeOliveira, a sophomore and one of the Townies to share a spot upfront with Abrams this fall, said of her 14th goal of the season.
“We call that our ‘Thunder and Lightning’ formation. We move different people up and back into different positions,” Pizzi said of the switch of Abrams to a more defensive posture. “Alyssa is our ‘Thunder.’ She locked down on defense and when the opportunity presented itself she exploited it. She got the ball in space and finished.”
The Panthers, sensing the urgency of the moment, once again became the aggressor. Robbins came out of nowhere to control a free ball at midfield, beat a couple E.P. defenders and sent shot on frame that forced Jackson to make a terrific diving save. But moments later the Panthers did pounce, as Gabriella Scarcella ripped a low shot off a cross to make it 3-2 in the 66th minute.
Johnston continued to press forward seeking the equalizer, but Jackson and the East Providence back line was up to the challenge. The Panthers came closest when a chip from just outside the six-yard box narrowly missed the far corner. Jackson then made another diving one handed save to her right on a low shot by Robbins aimed squarely at bottom corner in the 76th. Seconds later Jackson made a two-handed punch save of a Johnston shot off a free kick on frame, which proved to be last best chance for the Panthers.
“I knew the girls were giving 110 percent and I knew had to match their work and work ethic. I just thought the team as a whole played well. No one slacked,” said Jackson, the Townies’ sophomore keeper.
Jackson finished the night with 10 saves while her Johnston counterpart Hailey Gaunt was credited with 11. Savannah Feola assisted on one of the goals for Abrams, who upped her season tally to 32.
“Mia was outstanding. She shut down opportunity after opportunity. Defense, again, what a job. I’ve got to give Lindsey Amaral credit for leading the defense, but everyone back there helped keep them in check,” said Pizzi.
The Townies haven’t lost in 14 games total since dropping a 5-2 decision to Johnston late in the 2016 regular season. East Providence won its final three games to close last year, including a 4-3 victory over the Panthers on penalty kicks in the D-III championship game.
The Townies close out their regular season this week with two games, including a road game against league newcomer Lincoln School. The Lynx enter the week, like E.P., with an unblemished record, 9-0-0. Kickoff at Faxon Farm, home of Lincoln School outdoor sports off Route 44 in Rehoboth, is 4:15 p.m.
“Again, we’re facing an undefeated team. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to match up against them,” Pizzi said of Lincoln School. “I think the team we see will be as good if not better than the team we played tonight.”