FALMOUTH—It took them a little time to find their bearings, but the Blazes eventually pushed back against overwhelming Skowhegan pressure in Saturday afternoon, Oct. 28’s Class A field hockey State Championship. A second-half Mary Keef goal tore a huge chunk out of the Indians’ 2-1 lead and provided Westbrook an adrenalizing confidence boost. Alas, in the end, Skowhegan’s experience and skill allowed them to persevere: 2-1 the final.

“We had never seen them play before,” Westbrook co-head-coach Theresa Hendrix said of Skowhegan. “We had just heard about them, got a few scouting reports. So we weren’t quite sure what we were in for. Once we kind of made those adjustments on how they played and what we saw, the girls were able to get a little bit of confidence and play our game.”

The Indians charged onto the field looking exactly like everyone expected them to look: ferocious, skilled, and self-assured. (The program, after all, has been to 17 consecutive State Championships – and it’s won 15 of those.) Skowhegan seized control of the play almost immediately, driving the ball into Westbrook’s end of the field and denying the Blazes’ every attempt to clear.

It only took the Indians three minutes and 14 seconds to tally their first of the day, an Olivia Hatch goal on an inward feed by Hannah Kennedy. The strike boded ill for Westbrook; they needed to adjust fast if they hoped to prevent the contest from devolving into a rout.

Luckily, one change the Blazes had made to their overall strategy late in the regular season kept them from taking on further water as they scrambled to ramp up the rest of their game to match Skowhegan’s intensity – in particular, Westbrook had beefed up their back line with a third defender. The tactic helped the Blazes secure playoffs wins against both Massabesic and Biddeford, two outfits they’d previously fallen to, and it helped them survive the Indians’ relentless assault as well.

“Things happen; goals get scored,” Hendrix said. “You can’t hang your head. You’ve just got to keep fighting, and that’s what our defense does. They play with a lot of heart.”

Of course, Westbrook netminder Kimmie Goddard deserves props too. Goddard was a rock for the Blazes all fall, and proved her worth vs. Skowhegan time and again as well.

Westbrook made their first minor push roughly seven minutes in, but the Indians quickly thwarted the advance and regained control. Four minutes later, after Skowhegan took – but failed to convert on – the afternoon’s first corner, Hendrix and her co-head-coach Beth Murphy called timeout.

The Blazes began to stanch the bleeding after that, managing to drive the action back and back and back, all the way to the Indians’ end. Westbrook then took their first real, sustained turn on the attack; Maddison LeBeau capped it, unleashing a close-call ball around 15:00, but one that blasted just wide of the Skowhegan post. 

Still, the Indians held the offensive advantage for the remainder of the half, and with 10:37 remaining, Julia Steeves notched their second of the day on a Maliea Kelso feed. Westbrook thus headed into the break down 2-0.

Among Skowhegan’s many weapons was their sheer pace: The Indians never let those beats elapse, for instance, those one- or two-second long intervals between a whistle and a free hit that almost all teams seem to take as momentary breathers, opportunities to gather their wits. Skowhegan simply rushed headlong into the next spurt of action, trusting to their conditioning and their training to keep their legs moving and their minds focused. When the Blazes realized they had no choice but to adopt the exact same pace, they did so – and it benefited them greatly.

“Every free hit, they take them quick and they take them hard,” Hendrix said. “So for our girls to know, right if we lose the ball, to turn around, and they’re going to try to send it across the field, and be ready for that. Take that away…With a team that plays fast, you can’t have that one or two seconds to ever pause. You just need to continue to go and continue to move. I think we finally caught on to that and were able to play at that same speed.”

Keef is a knife up the sideline. She regularly blows past opponents and either carries the ball inward for a shot or centers it for one of her teammates to take a shot. Against the Indians, though, she met her match – at least, she did at first. Sure, she managed, on several occasions in the uphill minutes, to snake around a Skowhegan defender and initiate an offensive push; each time, however, a back-up Indian (often Alexis Vashon) would zoom in and stymie her.

“We actually switched her from the first half; she was on the right side,” Hendrix said of Keef. “And they’re a team, they keep their sticks down low the whole time. So Mary had to change up her regular moves a little bit. We put her onto the left side, and she was able to have a little bit more space, which really was key for her.”

It wasn’t a Keef drive that ultimately put Westbrook on the board. Instead, it was Keef capitalizing on a determined Abby Symbol dance from the left Indians’ corner toward their cage; Symbol wended inward before powering into the final fray and shunting the ball ahead, where Keef picked it up and managed to slam it home.

“Playing to our strong suits, and playing our game, and not worrying really about what [Skowhegan is] individually going to do, but what we need to do in order to get [that goal] back,” Hendrix said. “And I think one things started going our way, the girls started believing they could play and they started playing to their own level.”

“We were able to start getting that momentum swing; we started getting the touches on the ball,” Hendrix said. “It looked like, at times, Skowhegan got frustrated, and I think we were able to capitalize off that.”

“It was really one of the first times we had it in their circle,” Hendrix said of Keef’s goal. “So we knew if we could get it back in their circle, there was another chance to get another one.”

Now the Blazes had truly slipped into a groove to match Skowhegan’s own. They continued to pressure and, with 9:30 to go, nearly repeated their first scoring play exactly. This time, though, Symbol’s feed to Keef, and Keef’s relay shot, did not find the back of the net, but took to the air, where the Indians’ keeper swatted it out-of-bounds with her stick.

Seemingly, that should’ve resulted in a Westbrook corner. But the official who made the call perhaps didn’t have the best view on the moment, and awarded Skowhegan the ball instead. In the end, it’s unlikely the stolen corner cost the Blazes the game, since most corners don’t result in goals, and Westbrook continued to pressure regardless. In fact, finding themselves unduly denied an opportunity might even have stoked the Blazes’ fury, fueled them in their desperate end-of-game blitz.

Westbrook did earn one last corner before time expired on their season: With under two minutes to play, Maddie LeBeau, at the top of the circle, collected the insertion and lambasted a shot – but that ball, like LeBeau’s earlier drive had done, flew just wide. All too soon, the buzzer tolled the Blazes’ 2-1 demise.

“Unfortunately, it just went a little wide,” Hendrix said of LeBeau’s blast. “But we couldn’t have asked for a better scenario. We believe in Maddison, and we want the ball on her stick in those clutch situations.”

Westbrook retires till 2018 at 14-5.

Adam Birt can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @CurrentSportsME.

The Westbrook Captains – from left: Jaclyn Hazlewood, Avery Tucker, Maddison LeBeau and Camryn LaPierre – pose with their runners-up plaque.

Maddison LeBeau confronts a Skowhegan opponent.

Kallie Cyr played a critical role in Westbrook’s outstanding defense this season.

The Blazes celebrate Mary Keef’s (14) goal.

The Blazes unite during the National Anthem.

Mary Keef executes one of her trademark runs up the sideline, blowing past a Skowhegan defender.

Abby Symbol’s persistent efforts to feed the ball inside ultimately allowed teammate Mary Keef to score.

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