AYER -- Few things can set the tone of a soccer match for a visiting team than netting the first goal.
That is exactly what No. 13 Uxbridge did Friday afternoon, when it defeated Ayer-Shirley, 4-1. Lady Spartans' forward Courtney Popin scored her first goal in the fifth minute and potted three more to lead Uxbridge in its upset victory.
For the host Lady Panthers, the 2013 season has been one of epic proportions following last year's two-win finish. Ayer-Shirley head coach Justin Carlson brought the Lady Panthers to its first trip to the playoffs in his eight-year tenure at the helm of the program.
"It was a fun season," Carlson said. "I knew it wasn't your typical 4-13, match-up. I know Uxbridge plays a very difficult schedule. They are a veteran team which had some success in the postseason last year and had some of their key players back."
Popin's first goal came off a through-ball from Jessica Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald pushed the ball into the goal box on a diagonal and caught Popin in stride. Popin pushed her shot over the left shoulder of Ayer-Shirley goalkeeper Melissa Belanger to make it 1-nil.
The Ayer-Shirley defense held its ground and sprung a couple of quality runs by the sisterly duo of Taryn and Cassidy Manna, but they didn't translate into goals.
In the 20th minute, Fitzgerald found a hole in the Lady Panthers' defensive scheme and beat Belanger unassisted. Fitzgerald dribbled the ball up the middle of the pitch and flicked it past the diving Belanger to make it 2-0.
Ayer-Shirley sophomore forward Halie Young broke free from the chains of the Spartans defense and was able to settle the ball inside the 18-yard box. Young curled the ball into the driving headwind as it swooshed in the back left pocket of the net to make it 2-1.
A little over a minute later, the Ayer-Shirley defense conceded a goal to the fleet-footed Popin. Popin received a precise cross from Fitzgerald and boomed it home off the volley to cap off the first half scoring and give the Lady Spartans a comfortable 3-1 advantage at the intermission.
Popin provided the eventual dagger in the 53rd minute when she beat Belanger for her third goal of the match off a masterful feed from Fitzgerald.
Cassidy Manna had a penalty kick opportunity in the 65th minute steered away by Uxbridge goalkeeper Melissa Morton. Cassidy Manna blasted the ball off the hands of Morton. Morton was able to stave off a fearsome rebound chance from Young and blasted the ball out of the Uxbridge defensive third.
Uxbridge moved into a more possession-based attack as it upset Ayer-Shirley on its home pitch to advance to the Div. 4 CMass. District semifinal.
For Carlson's Lady Panthers, the 2013 season has been a joyous one, despite its unfortunate first-round exit.
"We are definitely going to miss our seniors," he said. "They are going to be hard to replace, but there are a lot of young players to take their place. It's tough to make a lot of headway when it's your first time in."
The Lady Panthers' soccer program graduates its leading goal-scorer, Holly Caires, Belanger and defender Gabby Hebert.
Belanger made five saves in her final game between the pipes for the Lady Panthers.
Ayer-Shirley finishes its season with a 10-5-2 record.