LYNN — Alli Napoli toed the goal line, eyes locked on Manchester Essex’s Mia Cromwell as she squared up for a penalty kick. The score was tied at 1-1, and with less than three minutes left in regulation, the Amesbury goalie knew that if the ball got past her, her team’s dream of a fourth consecutive Division 4 North title was probably dead.
Cromwell stepped forward, and Napoli made her choice, bouncing to her right in anticipation of the shot.
She guessed correctly.
Napoli saved the penalty kick and kept the game tied to force overtime and eventually a shootout. Once there, Amesbury overcame an opening-round miss to hit three shots in a row, with Napoli making another save while Alyssa Pettet clinched the sectional title with an emphatic goal to seal the shootout victory.
“Alli was incredible. The PK save in the game, wow, incredible,” said Amesbury coach Adam Thibodeau. “That dive out and save, Alli has worked really hard for four straight years and it shows. She has 49 career shutouts with room to get 50 or 51, she’s an incredible talent who just wants to be good.”
Napoli finished with nine saves, including the two penalty kick stops, and was also a rock in the defensive box as Manchester tested the Amesbury defense with dangerous crosses and corners. That was especially important early, as Manchester came out of the gate strong and eventually took a 1-0 lead on a picture perfect play in the box started by Maya Baker and finished by Cromwell for the icebreaking goal.
Amesbury came out of halftime on fire, dominating the opening 10 minutes of the second half to tie the game on a goal by McKenna Hallinan. Initially started on a MK McElaney corner kick, Avery Hallinan got her foot on the ball and fired it on net, only for a Manchester defender to get a foot on it to keep it out. McKenna was in position to jump on the rebound, however, sliding in to tie the game up at 1-1.
After a couple of other close calls, Manchester Essex settled down and the two sides played competitive soccer for the rest of regulation. A foul in the box with three minutes left nearly swung the game decisively in Manchester’s direction, but Napoli was able to make the penalty kick save. Once in overtime, Avery Hallinan had the only really good scoring chance for either side, forcing the shootout.
Amesbury initially found itself at a disadvantage, with Cromwell making up for her earlier miss while Amesbury’s first shooter missed. But Gracie Doherty scored on the second shot while the Hornets missed the net to tie it at 1-1, Avery Hallinan scored while Napoli came up with a stop to take the lead, and then Manchester’s fourth shooter also missed the net to give Pettet a chance to finish the job.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind what was going to happen next.
“If she’s a real soccer player, she’ll get it in, if she’s a real athlete, she’ll get it in,” Napoli said of Pettet, who is committed to Division 1 Holy Cross. “I already know who she is and what she’s made of and she’s amazing, she’s probably the best athlete I’ve ever played with in any other sport.”
“You have to tune everything else out and pretend it’s practice,” Pettet said. “Don’t allow it to get in your head and you go up and take the shot, you can’t think about it.”
For Manchester Essex, which went 0-3 against its Cape Ann League Baker Division rival and had to watch it celebrate a sectional title for the second year in a row, the loss was another tough finish to a highly successful season.
“We played our heart out this season, we’ve worked so hard as a group and this is our dream, playing against Amesbury, another great team, we’ve been rivals all season and to play 100 minutes and give it all we had, I couldn’t ask any more of the team,” said Cromwell, whose team finished 11-4-5. “We played our hearts out and sometimes you fall short.”
Amesbury, meanwhile, is now 14-1-6 and will now play in the Division 4 state semifinals for the fourth consecutive year. The Indians have lost in the semifinals each of the last three years — the last two years at the hands of Millis, who Amesbury will face for the third straight year on Wednesday — and this year Amesbury is determined to finally break through.
“We keep re-writing the same chapters, it’s like Groundhog Day,” Thibodeau said. “Hopefully we get the result we’re looking for this year, because they want it. They want it bad.”
Amesbury and Millis will face off at Manning Field in Lynn on Wednesday starting at 5 p.m.
Amesbury 2, Manchester 1
Division 4 North Final
Amesbury wins shootout 3-1
Regulation goals: A — McKenna Hallinan; ME — Mia Cromwell
Shootout goals: A — Avery Hallinan, Gracie Doherty, Alyssa Pettet; ME — Cromwell
Assists: A — A. Hallinan; ME — Maya Baker
Saves: A — Alli Napoli 9
Manchester (11-4-5): 1 0 0 — 1
Amesbury (14-1-6): 0 1 1 — 2