WOBURN — Beverly junior forward Caitlin Harty missed a chance to give her Panthers a lead just five minutes into last night’s Division 1 North semi-final against Westford Academy, booting an open look into the goalkeeper’s chest.
She wasn’t going to miss twice.
Harty’s strike in the 25th minute, which included some nifty footwork around Grey Ghost keeper Samantha Hyslip and a creative assist from teammate Eva Gourdeau, stood up as the Panthers beat Westford 1-0 at Woburn’s Connolly Memorial Stadium.
Beverly (17-3) advances to the North final for the first time since 1997, and will play Central Catholic at Manning Field tomorrow (2:30 p.m.).
“Coming into the tournament, we were thinking about winning one round. Now, we’re thinking we have a chance — we can do this,” said Harty, who extended her single season school records to 49 goals and 60 points.
The fourth seeded Panthers saw their defense, led by captains Diandra Crowley and Becca Kemmer, backs Kristen O’Connor and Nicole Kirsch and keeper Casey Cook, blanked two straight Dual County League teams and hasn’t allowed a goal in 165 postseason minutes.
“This is phenomenal, we’re excited and pumped to make it this far,” said Cook, who made seven of her 11 saves in the first half. “I’m so proud of the team. We really settled it down, sometimes early on we panicked a little because we were excited.”
Cook’s best save came 10 minutes after Harty’s goal, as the junior came off her line to stop Westford’s Caitlyn Paitsos. O’Connor also booted away a solid Ghost chance as Westford applied its best pressure late in the opening half. The Panthers held the lead, however, and settled down in the second half.
“It’s a long season and while we’ve made some mistakes, we sorted through them,” Beverly coach Kristin Simpson said of the improved play of her defense. “They’re showing composure, staying patient instead of diving after the ball. They’re working together and not individually. It’s all communication and composure.”
Offensively, Beverly was aggressive against ninth-seeded Westford (12-5-1). Gourdeau made several nice runs to set up chances that missed in the early going. Then in the 25th minute, she ran by two defenders in a 2-on-1 with Harty.
Both Westford defenders collapsed on Gourdeau, and Harty won the ball with just the keeper to beat. She did, placing her shot high into the cage for only goal of the game.
“I wanted to get it on net, and when it was going high I was just thinking stay down and don’t go over. I saw it go in and I was ecstatic,” said Harty. “Eva sends the best balls through, she’s a great partner to have up top. She always finds me and I’m so thankful for that.”
Beverly’s midfield, including Meggie Manzo, Rachel Kenny, Allison Collins and Rose Terner, helped keep Westford off balance in the second. Save for a Meghan Thomasch bid off the crossbar, the Ghosts didn’t put the Panther defense on its heels.
Gourdeau, a sublime, talented sophomore, was the key to the possession game.
“It’s all mental for Eva. She needs something good to get her going and I think that assist to Caitlin early in our last game did that for her. Hopefully for us, she won’t stop, because we don’t win the last two games without her playing the way she’s playing,” said Simpson.
Beverly almost extended its lead twice. Gourdeau’s bid off a corner kick was saved early in the second half and Harty had a header off another set piece go wide with 15 minutes to play. The Panther defense calmly returned the ball to midfield following most Westford runs to hold the lead.
“We’re just more confident now,” said Cook. “We had to get those jitters and nervousness out early in the tournament and we’ve picked it up a lot since then.”
The Panthers are searching for their first North title against the unbeaten Raiders (15-0-4). The last time Beverly was in the North final was Simpson’s sophomore year as a player 15 years ago, when they fell to Winchester.
“I remember the loss. It was at Bertram Field (in Salem). That was a great season with a great coach and a great group of girls,” said Simpson.
“We have a great group of girls here, too. They deserve this.”