Skowhegan starts, finishes strong in win

HAMPDEN — Typical of a team with 17 state championships to its name, the Skowhegan field hockey team seized control early with a state final trip at stake. And typical of a team with those 17 titles, the Indians never let it go.

No. 1 Skowhegan opened with a flourish and closed with a bang, earning a 3-1 victory over No. 2 Messalonskee in the Class A North championship game at Hampden Academy on Friday night.

It was a rematch of last year’s regional final, won 3-2 by Skowhegan (16-1-0). And considering the competitive culture that has developed between the programs, it was a matchup that seemed destined from the very start of the season in late August.

“Messo, I don’t think anyone realizes how formidable they are. They’re an amazing team,” coach Paula Doughty said. “Preparing for a team like that is a challenge. … To get a win over them is always spectacular for us.”

The teams split this season, and Doughty was impressed with how her team, from the charged-up offense to the aggressive defense to the clutch goaltending of Leah Savage, took command in the rubber match.

“Today, we executed,” she said. “Our corners, we executed. Whenever we got a shot on goal, we took advantage of it. Defensively, our goalie played amazing.”

Junior midfielder Maliea Kelso, a Northeastern commit who scored one of the Indians’ goals, echoed those sentiments.

“We came into the game saying ‘This is what we need to do, this is how we’re going to do it,’ ” she said. “We just had a gameplan, and we had to stick to the gameplan.”

The Indians jumped on the Eagles (14-3-0) from the beginning, stifling Messalonskee with pressure in the offensive end and accumulating three corners in the first 4:15. Skowhegan broke through on the third try, with Haley Carter receiving the pass behind the Eagles defense and blasting a shot into the cage for a 1-0 lead with 25:39 to go in the first half.

“We started out slow, missed a lot of good opportunities around the goal,” Eagles coach Katie McLaughlin said. “Skowhegan, they’ve got such a good, tough mentality. This is comfortable (to them). That’s a hard hump to get over, is kind of the psyche of this championship game, and that’s what really pulls us down in that first half until we get our feet back under us.”

The Eagles eventually got their bearings and began to match the Indians’ pace, but wouldn’t be able to catch up on the scoreboard. Skowhegan doubled its lead with 23:08 to play in the second half, on a play starting with a long pass in from Hannah McKenney. Standing in front of the goaltender with her back to the cage, Julia Steeves was still able to redirect the ball into the goal, putting the Indians ahead 2-0.

Its pursuit of regional and state championships in serious jeopardy, Messalonskee called timeout with 21:37 to go. The tactic began to pay off less than a minute later, with Autumn Littlefield taking the ball around the Skowhegan defense and chipping in a shot from roughly 10 yards out that sailed into the cage, cutting the gap to 2-1 and restored the chances for an Eagles comeback — one that nearly was completed when Littlefield’s shot off a corner with just over 17 minutes to play sailed just wide of the net.

“That was a huge motivation, it definitely turned things in our direction, got our girls excited and going and gave us some hope,” McLaughlin said.

The Indians weren’t about to let the game get away, however. Skowhegan got its ninth corner with 10:19 to play and crippled Messalonskee in nearly the same way it pinned it, with Kelso blasting in a shot off the send-in from Olivia Hatch to bring the score to its eventual 3-1 final. Kelso originally tried to pass the ball in, but after having it sent back to her, instead ripped the shot for the score.

“I feel like we definitely needed the extra ‘oomph,’ ” she said. “Reassuring we had this, I guess you could say.”

Messalonskee didn’t give up, racking up two more corners on its way to 11 for the game, but was denied at each turn by Savage. The senior was active throughout the game, constantly rushing out to challenge shots and angles, and at one point in the closing minutes dove to break up a pair of Eagles possessions.

“You just have that mentality of ‘the ball’s not going in,’ ” Savage said. “They just kept hounding me and you definitely get into that rhythm and you’re just prepared for every shot that’s coming. You’re just zoned in.”

It all came together in another big-game win over a team in Messalonskee that has turned into a good-natured rival for Maine’s most decorated program.

“I feel like we really bring out the best in each other because we’re such good teams,” Kelso said. “We just compete really hard against each other and we know both of the teams have a good shot at winning or losing.”

And it means another signature playoff moment that Doughty said never gets old.

“It’s different kids every year,” she said. “It’s new kids every year, new challenges every year, new goals every year.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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