LYNN — The Danvers High girls soccer program had scaled so many mountains over the last 12 months that they were comfortable playing in any situation imaginable. The Falcons had been ahead early, behind early and tied at various points in the dozen playoff games they'd been in over the last three years, so the veteran-laden squad believed it could find a way to win no matter the course.
Spotting a team as good as Winchester High three goals in the Division 2 North final, though, proved to be a slope too steep to scale.
The second-seeded Sachems blitzed the defending state champion Falcons with two goals in the opening 177 seconds on their way to a 3-1 victory at Manning Field.
Winchester (21-1) scored again midway through the first half to take a surprising 3-0 lead and essentially put away any hopes Danvers (18-3-1) had of returning to the state final.
"Against a team that defends as well as Winchester, two goals is a lot. Three is almost impossible," said veteran Danvers coach Jimmy Hinchion. "We picked a really bad time to play probably our worst half of soccer of the season."
Senior captain Riley Baker gave Danvers some life when Winchester, which now plays Hopkinton for the Division 2 state title on Saturday, was whistled for a foul in the box in the second half. Baker buried the ensuing penalty kick to make it 3-1 with 22 minutes left.
But while the Falcons outshot the Sachems (13-7 overall and 6-2 in the second half) and drew far more corner kicks (7-2), they weren't able to claw their way back on the scoreboard.
"We were really one goal away from getting back into the game," Hinchion said. "Credit the Winchester defense. We had shots, but they weren't quality shots. They weren't on frame and they weren't dangerous."
For the second straight game, Danvers allowed a goal off the opening kick. Winchester's Ally Murphy was there for the finish after a bad clearing attempt at the 30-second mark, and unlike in the semifinal win a few days prior, the Falcons never recovered.
Instead, Winchester extended the lead when speedy Hannah Curtin ran by multiple defenders along the left sideline and sent a tough-angle rocket into the cage to make it 2-0 after only 2:57 of game action.
"It was a dream start," said Winchester coach Rick Emanuel. "We wanted to play the first ten minutes as if they were the last ten."
The Sachems were the fastest team Danvers had played all season, Hinchion said, and it took the Falcons some time to adjust to an opponent capable of running with them. Once they did, Danvers began carrying the play and sending shots at Winchester keeper Colleen Gogolin with Baker, Lauren Clement and Arianna Bezanson coming close to slicing into the lead in the middle parts of the first half.
Just when Danvers was taking some momentum, though, Curtin created another scoring chance. This time, the Falcon defense collapsed as she ran towards the net and Curtin somehow threaded a pass between three defenders to wide open freshman Jordan Weinberg for a 3-0 edge at the 22-minute mark.
"That was a back breaker, certainly," Hinchion said of the third goal. "We were playing better and starting to defend better. We had talked about not giving Winchester the first goal because when they're in the lead they defend so well, and we gave them the first three. That's a really big hole to dig out of."
It was the third time all year Danvers had allowed three goals in a game, but Danvers was confident since they're rallied from two goals down to beat Medway 4-3 in September.
The Falcons continued to press their attack, earning five corners in the first half, but couldn't get any of them on target. Senior captain Jess Pelletier had a handful of free kicks inside the 30-yard line that were either forced wide or blocked by Winchester's defense. Danvers thought it had another corner kick at the end of the first half, but after a yellow card for calling a timeout when they'd already used their first half stoppage, time was blown before the kick.
"At no point did we think it was out of reach for Danvers. They're a strong, fast and skilled team that we knew could get those goals back at any minute," said Emanuel, whose team is in the state final for the first time since winning Division 1 in 2002. "We all know what the 2-nil score line means in soccer so getting that third one was huge."
Most of the second half was more of the same. Winchester occasionally threatened on counter runs, with Danvers' own speedster Livvy Anderson running back to break them up. Generally, the Falcons controlled possession with the Sachems content to clog shooting lanes and defend away from the ball. Following Baker's penalty kick, Danvers did create two set pieces, but didn't truly challenge Winchester's defense with a quality chance.
It was the third straight trip the Division 2 North championship game for Danvers and its seven seniors: Clement, Pelletier, Baker, Madison Capezzuto, Hailey Chisholm and outstanding defenders Erica Blanch and Madison Pesce. The group had a record of 53-10-1 over the last three seasons, unprecedented success that included two Northeastern Conference titles and a 10-2 playoff mark.
"They went to three North finals and they were a huge part of our program's only state title. They're fantastic players and they're leaders. They're so unselfish; I told the girls in 20 years of coaching this is the most unselfish team I've ever been around," Hinchion said. "I'm proud of them I'm lucky that I got to coach them."