Pictured: Mercy takes a 13-game winning streak into the Class M title game against Sacred Heart Academy, a team they beat just two weeks ago. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
NEW BRITAIN – The celebration was subdued, but the performance was anything but that.
No. 4 seed Mercy outran, outplayed and outscored defending Class M champion Granby in a 3-0 victory Tuesday night at Veterans Stadium and will play for the first state championship in program history this weekend.
The Tigers, with only one senior in the starting lineup, were steady and strong throughout against a veteran, No. 9 seed Granby team that won two of the last three titles in Class M and 27 straight games before the streak ended in October.
Sophomore leading scorer Kate Donlan registered two first-goal goals, and when freshman Laney Smith converted a penalty kick with 25:24 left in the match, it eliminated any doubt whether Mercy would finally advance through the semifinal round for the first time in five tries.
“Oh man, I don’t know what to say,” Mercy coach Marcus Harley said after the Tigers (19-2-2) won for the 13th consecutive time. “That was just awesome. It was a great effort — 100 percent. That’s all I ask for and that’s what they gave me.”
Harley said the goal has been the same – win a state championship – each year since he was hired as coach in 2010. The Tigers most recently were semifinalists in 2013 (Class LL) and 2014 (L), but suffered two-goal defeats each time.
“We just couldn’t take that next step forward,” he said.
Mercy will meet No. 3 Sacred Heart Academy in the final (day and time TBD) at Dillon Stadium in Hartford. The Tigers beat the Sharks 2-1 two weeks ago on the way to their first Southern Connecticut Conference championship.
“This group of girls is working hard and they’re delivering,” Harley added. “And that’s what we intend to do, keep delivering for all those girls that came before. That’s what they’re doing, finishing the job.”
Donlan was in a one-on-one situation to attempt Mercy’s first shot of the match and she came through with ease, beating her defender and Bears senior keeper Kayla Davis 11:50 into the first half.
“That was tough,” said Donlan, who was going up against a Bears back line of four seniors. “I had to read the goalie. She came out and I knew I had to be patient and keep my composure. I’m glad I just got to hit it to the (left) corner and get that first goal for us.”
Donlan scored again with 7:56 left before halftime. Operating in open space before attracting multiple defenders, she used her quickness and dribbling skill to get around them and drew Davis away from the net just enough to get a shot around her for a 2-0 lead.
“It just kept on dribbling until I got an open net,” Donlan said. “It was just me and the goalie. It was pretty great.”
Mercy’s midfield – juniors Lauren Kohs and Megan Gallagher, sophomore Megan Menard and freshman Kaylea Micale – had a great game advancing the ball for Donlan as well as Smith, who entered the varsity picture midway through the season and became a lineup regular and scoring threat.
And the Tigers’ defense – captain Jess Eaton, juniors Avery Kohs and Julia Nadolski and sophomore Jules Yuris — allowed the Bears (15-4-0) next to nothing in the way of a decent scoring chance. Junior keeper Melina Ford saved four shots on the night.
“They didn’t really have any good looks at us,” said Harley. “Melina didn’t have to do much in the goal. We just had the energy at the start. That’s what Kate said in the locker room, ‘Let’s get the first goal.’ And that’s what we did. She went out there to get that first goal.”
Smith gave Mercy a three-goal advantage with the penalty kick near the midway point of the second half. After she was shoved to the turf from behind, she coolly drilled her shot to the left of a diving Davis.
“She’s an insane freshman,” Donlan said of her teammate, in the best of terms. “I love playing with her. We connect so well. She’s a really smart player with a high soccer IQ and a very fun girl to play with. I love her all around. It’s been that way since she’s come up.”
Like the first 40 minutes, Granby was unable to sustain possessions and put pressure on Ford.
“We stayed strong,” said Eaton, Mercy’s only senior starter. “We knew No. 10 (Addyson Earl) and No. 3 (Alyssa Mackowski) were going to be very difficult to defend. We wanted to make sure we went very hard to every ball, not give them any chance on Melina, and I think we accomplished that.”
Eaton wasn’t sure what to expect, knowing the team was on the young side and hardly a proven bunch, when they first began playing as a unit over the summer.
“I am so incredibly proud of this team,” she said. “Since summer league we’ve come such a long way. Even in the beginning of the season, we were trying to get in the groove. But I’m so proud to say I’m the captain of this team. We’ve all come such a long way. We don’t give up. We’ve been down in a couple of games and we just keep pushing and pushing.
“We’re making history and I’m really, really proud of that.”