WEST GREENWICH — Freshman midfielder Laura Palmer sat on the bench and watched her Exeter-West Greenwich girls soccer teammates battle No. 5 Portsmouth in wet and windy conditions for 95 minutes Thursday afternoon.
And then coach Kevin Fraser summoned Palmer from the bench and replaced Lane West with the freshman in a tie game in EWG’s first ever Division I playoff game.
Palmer wasn’t in the game to score a goal during regulation, she was there to take a penalty kick and that’s exactly what happened when the freshman fired a spot kick past Gabrielle Armin to keep EWG alive in the fifth round.
“It’s really nerve-wracking and you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you just try to focus,” Palmer said. “It’s really hard because you want to go one way and you think the goalie might go that way. I just faked to the left and went to the right.”
Sophomore defender Brooke Pagliarini and senior Abby Borges kept the game going with converted kicks, before Portsmouth’s Grace Cavanagh skied her attempt over the net to give Emily Pagliarini a chance to send EWG into the semifinals.
The junior coolly finished her attempt to lead the Knights, winners of the last three Division II titles, into Thursday night’s Division I semifinals with a 2-1 (6-5 shootout) victory.
“It was definitely traumatizing. That’s the most pressure I’ve had put on me in a while,” Pagliarini said. “I was watching the goalie through the whole shootout and that gave me an idea of where I wanted to go. The game was so stressful, but we’ve worked so hard for this. Not just this year, but for all of our years to come to Division I and do this.”
“This has definitely been worth it,” Fraser said. “Division I is a lot of fun. We’ve been practicing penalty kicks for the last few weeks and I was a little concerned on Wednesday because we struggled with them. I was hoping that yesterday would be the off day and today would be the on day for us.”
EWG goalie Makayla Brady kept her team alive in the shootout with a nice save on a kick by Hannah Taylor in the fourth round. When the Knights were at the penalty spot Brady stood pensively on the edge of the penalty area looking into the woods with her back to the kick taker.
“Usually I’m just praying for my team to get the ball in and it’s a superstitious kind of thing,” Brady said. “If I watch the kicks I feel like they are going to miss it.”
The No. 4 Knights (10-2-3 Division I) haven’t lost a playoff game since losing the 2009 Division II title game to Smithfield. EWG has won 10 straight playoff games, but No. 11 is clearly going to be the toughest with top seeded La Salle waiting for the Knights in East Greenwich.
The Rams have yet to allow a goal this season and defeated South Kingstown 3-0 in the quarterfinals. When the two teams met on Sept. 19 at EWG the Rams walked away with a 4-0 win. It was one of just two times this year Kara Shaw and the Knights were held off the scoreboard.
“We can’t let them score so much,” Fraser joked. “They have a very tough defense. They don’t have a lot of power on offense, so if we can tighten up our defense in this next week of training and we work a little more on our scoring, we’ll have a better result.”
Fraser knows his team gave Portsmouth standouts Kelley Coyne and Leah Hibbard far too much space in Thursday’s contest. The Pats, who were playing with the wind at their backs in the first half, nearly scored in the 11th minute on a powerful shot by Hibbard.
EWG opened the scoring in the 25th minute on a great individual effort by senior Alyssa Clements. The forward maneuvered around three Portsmouth defenders along the byline before crossing the ball to Emily LePage for an easy goal at the far post.
“Alyssa made an awesome run down the side and she just cut in. It looked like she was going for the goal, but she saw me open in the middle,” LePage said. “Our goal before the season was to get into the top four for the playoffs and now our goal is to just win it all.”
The Patriots responded with a goal in the 31st minute when Hibbard started a counterattack and connected with Coyne, who slotted a shot past Brady from the top of the box.
The game was played in a persistent drizzle in a second half which featured very few chances for either team. EWG hit the crossbar in the first overtime following a nice corner kick, but neither team could score in either 10-minute overtime period.
Portsmouth took the early lead in the shootout when Hibbard scored and Clements missed. The two teams’ top offensive weapons – Shaw and Coyne – both missed penalties. Shaw’s miss was the final penalty kick the Knights would miss, while the Pats saw Taylor and Cavanagh fail to score.
“This is a lot more fun than D-II,” said LePage, who converted EWG’s fourth penalty kick. “You don’t know what’s going to happen at this level. Last year we kind of knew what was going to happen each game. This is a lot more fun because we don’t know how it’s going to end.”