PORTLAND—To be the best you have to beat the best and the North Yarmouth Academy girls’ lacrosse team took a giant leap toward a highly-desired first-ever Class B state championship Tuesday afternoon by borrowing a page from its accomplished rival.

Playing at a Waynflete team that beat them in each of the past two state finals, the Panthers controlled possession, played superb defense, won draws and managed to stall at the end, all Flyers’ staples, as they beat their nemesis for the second time this season, 8-7, keeping hope alive for homefield advantage throughout the regional playoffs.

NYA, which trailed only once, in the early going, missed an opportunity to build a healthy lead by halftime, but every time Waynflete drew even, the Panthers had an answer, most notably on junior Lily Wellenbach’s go-ahead goal with 3:48 to play.

NYA, which got four goals apiece from Wellenbach and senior Courtney Dumont, as well as a dozen key saves from senior goalie Ashley Salerno, held on down the stretch to improve to 8-3, ending the Flyers’ regular season at 10-2.

“It was terrifying at the end,” said Panthers assistant coach Mike Gengras, who, along with Jenna McCabe and Lynn Sullivan, filled in for head coach Julia Sterling, who is out with illness. “It was a little more frantic than we’d like. It always feels good to (run out the clock) against Waynflete after being on the other side so many times.”

Bouncing back

Just six days ago, NYA lost decisively at home to Yarmouth, 11-6, its second loss in as many games to the rival Clippers this spring, a setback which seemingly relegated the Panthers to the second spot in the standings.

NYA began to turn the tide Saturday with a 12-6 home victory over Cape Elizabeth, then put it all together at a Waynflete team that had won nine straight (including a 12-9 win at Yarmouth Monday) since the Panthers’ 7-6 home win over the Flyers back on April 28.

The stars were on display Tuesday on a brutally hot afternoon.

After NYA’s initial forays resulted in shots denied by Waynflete freshman goalie Katherine Torrey, the hosts went ahead for the only time, 1-0, on senior Morgan Woodhouse’s goal (assisted by freshman Martha Veroneau) 4 minutes, 20 seconds in.

The Panthers rallied with three straight, as Dumont scored on a free position shot, Dumont set up Wellenbach and Wellenbach scored unassisted for a 3-1 lead with 14:27 to play in the half.

After Woodhouse scored an unassisted goal for the Flyers three minutes later, Dumont grabbed the ensuing draw, raced in and shot the ball past Torrey to make it 4-2 with 11:13 left in the half.

NYA had ample opportunities to extend its lead, but wouldn’t score again before halftime. When Veroneau (from senior Amy Allen) scored with 2:05 to go and Woodhouse (after a turnover) scored on Salerno with 4 seconds left, Waynflete had improbably rallied to make it a 4-4 contest at the break.

“We were playing well and getting great opportunities, it was just execution, a dropped ball here or a turnover,” Gengras said. “We felt good. We just had to execute. It was a tough day to do it.”

The Panthers had all the answers in the second half.

After the Flyers almost went back on top with 22:25 remaining on a shot from junior Liv Chap that Salerno denied, Wellenbach set up Dumont for a goal with 19:47 to play, making it 5-4 NYA. Just 68 seconds later, the tandem hooked up again, this time Dumont feeding Wellenbach, and the Panthers had a 6-4 advantage.

As expected, Waynflete battled back.

After an apparent NYA goal (sophomore Kylie Dalbec from senior Rebecca McKelvy) was waved off for a crease violation, Veroneau scored unassisted with a low shot to make it 6-5 with 15:51 to play.

A minute later, Veroneau got loose in front and attempted to tie it up, but again Salerno turned away the bid.

A Woodhouse unassisted strike with 12:21 left tied the game at 6-6, but after demonstrating their patient offensive approach, running over four minutes off the clock, the Panthers went back ahead, 7-6, when Dumont scored on a free position with 8:35 to play.

“We may have missed a few, but I think all in all, we made the right decisions,” Dumont said. “Decision making and executing were important. Being really patient is important against the zone and in general. We didn’t force it. We waited for the right cut and the right pass.”

Again, the Flyers answered as junior Scout Haffenreffer scored on a free position goal with 7:12 left (Salerno slowed the shot, but couldn’t stop it from rolling into the cage).

Usually, when Waynflete finds itself in a tie game, late, at home, it finds a way to win, but the Flyers didn’t see the ball much the rest of the way.

After NYA won the ensuing draw, Woodhouse stole the ball away. The Flyers worked the ball to Veroneau who earned a free position, but Salerno again made the save. The Panthers countered and took the lead for good when Wellenbach placed a low shot past Torrey, giving NYA an 8-7 lead.

Waynflete won the draw, but uncharacteristically, turned it over and the Panthers made sure the hosts wouldn’t see it again, running out the final three minutes with a precision stall. The final horn sounded and NYA celebrated its first win at Waynflete since May 13, 2004 (10-9) and its first ever two-game regular season sweep over the team that has beaten it in all five state championship showdowns between the powers over the past nine years.

“It’s so intense,” Dumont said. “Luckily we had practice (with the stall). They’re a really tough team to do it against. They knew right away we’d do it. The key was using everyone and not just one or two girls to pass it back and forth.”

The Flyers were left in an unfamiliar position.

“(The stall at the end) shows the girls what it feels like to be on the other side,” Waynflete coach Cathie Connors said. “It’s a strategy and they used it and they did a great job with it. I think we were exhausted. No excuses, but (playing yesterday against Yarmouth) made a difference. We didn’t have a day off to come back fresh. We didn’t mark up man-to-man like we would have, because we were tired.”

Dumont and Wellenbach combined for all the offense, four goals apiece (Dumont had two assists, Wellenbach one), but this was a true team effort.

Salerno sparkled with her 12 critical saves.

“This is big for us,” Salerno said. “Beating one of the best teams in the state. A lot of (the saves) were just being in the right place at the right time. The defense was amazing. A lot of their shots weren’t as quality as they could have been since the defense cut down the angles.”

NYA won a stunning 12 of 17 draws and grabbed 41 ground balls to 30 for the Flyers, on grass no less, a surface on which the Panthers usually struggle mightily. Wellenbach and freshman Molly Strabley each had a team-high five, while Dalbec, Dumont, senior Hayley Bright and sophomore Katherine Millett all managed four. NYA had only 18 turnovers (10 fewer than the first meeting with the Flyers and nine less than the Yarmouth game last week).

What a difference a week makes.

“We had a team talk after the Yarmouth game and we didn’t even practice,” Dumont said. “We talked for like an hour-and-a-half. I think that really helped.”

“We made a lot of changes the last couple days,” Salerno said. “Our defense wasn’t as strong against Yarmouth. We had to tighten it up. In the offensive zone, we were patient and didn’t force passes.”

“I think the Yarmouth game was a good wakeup call for us,” Gengras added. “The girls have worked hard in practice. Our team defense has really come together. I think you saw that today. The help defense turning away the drives. Hats off to Waynflete, they broke it down near the end and got some looks, but Ashley came up big. Like always.”

Waynflete got four goals from Woodhouse, two goals and an assist from Veroneau, a goal from Haffenreffer and an assist from Allen. Torrey made four saves. Woodhouse led the team with seven ground balls, while junior Izzer Berrang and freshman Sadie Cole both had five. The Flyers finished with a 22-18 advantage in shots and only gave the ball away seven times, but they simply didn’t possess it like they usually do.

“I feel like if we played today like we did yesterday, it would have been different,” Connors said. “I felt like there were a lot of shots that if we took our time, it could have been different. That’s OK. I would love to see them again.

“I’m thrilled to death to be 10-2. I have no regrets. Having two losses by one goal, I’m good with that. For such a young team to have this record, I’m really proud of them. We have two weeks now. We have scrimmages with Scarborough and Brunswick. We can practice and specialize. We haven’t gone over things like breaking a stall.”

Waynflete will be first in the final Western B Heals and won’t play again until the semifinals on June 12. The Flyers would love a third crack at NYA, but regardless of who might be standing on the other side of the field on June 19, Waynflete has to be considered a legitimate threat for its third straight championship.

“I feel great,” Connors said. “I think we’re so excited and really want it. We’re having fun. We have two weeks together. The playoffs will be really tough. More so in the past.”

The Panthers, meanwhile, finish up Friday at home versus Greely. Whether or not NYA winds up first in Eastern B will be determined after that game and it will likely be close between the Panthers and Yarmouth. Wherever Act Three between those rivals takes place in the regional final June 16, the stakes will be high and the contest figures to be a classic.

“(Beating Waynflete) gives us confidence and brings us together even more,” Dumont said. “We know we have to beat Yarmouth before states. We love playing on our turf. That would be big.”

“I think the next game against Yarmouth will be different,” Salerno said. “We’re heading in the right direction. We haven’t reached our goal yet. I think we’re peaking at the right time. We had a little lull, but we’re really picking it up and looking a lot better.”    

“(The final Heals) will be a squeaker,” Gengras added. “We’ll crunch the numbers, but it looks good. Our issue will be playing our best lacrosse. I don’t think Yarmouth’s seen our best game yet. They’re a good team. It will be a battle. It will be fun. We’re looking forward to it.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]