MAYNARD — When the top two girls’ soccer teams in the Mid-Wach D square off, you can be assured of two things: That it’s going to be a battle to the bitter end, and there will likely be no distinct winner.
The Ayer-Shirley Lady Panthers had the opportunity to do something that has almost never been done before — go from worst to first in the league. However, on Wednesday night in Maynard, the stars were not aligned in the Lady Panthers’ favor, as they played to a 0-0 draw.
“We both had some opportunities,” Ayer-Shirley head coach Justin Carlson said. “Not a ton of them, but we just couldn’t get one in. Normally, I would be ecstatic with a tie with Maynard for first place. But where we were challenging for a league title, the tie really gives it to them.”
The shots on goal were almost even with a slight edge of 8-7 rendered to the Lady Panthers. Lady Panthers’ senior goalkeeper Melissa Belanger had one of the better performances of her young career. It is only Belanger’s second season playing varsity soccer, and she appeared to be in the zone Wednesday evening in Maynard.
The first half set the tone for the entire match as both teams were asking questions, trying to exploit the latent weakness of their opponents. Maynard’s first quality chance at goal came seven minutes into the match when senior forward Lauren Lappas uncorked a winding shot toward the top-left corner of the net. Lappas initially fielded a meandering cross from Ashley Capone and blasted it. Belanger elevated and steered the ball clear of danger.
Ayer-Shirley sisters Cassidy and Taryn Manna continued to push the envelope offensively for the guests. Cassidy Manna feverishly dribbled the ball down the right wing and blasted a cross into the mixer for senior standout captain Holly Caires. Caires settled the ball but her shot haphazardly floated into the hands of Maynard senior goalkeeper Izabella Guabala.
Caires had a couple more chances in the first half, but the Maynard defenders held the captain in check for the majority of the match.
Lappas dribbled the ball into the penalty area with 16 minutes remaining in the half. Belanger came off her line and was reeled out of position. Ayer-Shirley defender Megan Krueger raced back to the left post and blasted Lappas’ shot out of danger.
Maynard controlled the final 10 minutes of the half, and they were nearly rewarded when senior midfielder Jennifer Bosse whipped in a serve from the left sideline to Lappas.
Lappas put wicked pace behind the ball, but Belanger proved she was up for the challenge. Belanger crouched down and exploded to punch the ball out of play.
The teams went into the half scoreless, but both came out reenergized, looking for that game-swaying tally. But despite bountiful chances at goal, it never came.
In the 60th minute, Taryn Manna sped down the left wing, made a couple of shifty moves and unleashed a thunderous shot, but Guaballa snagged it.
The trend continued as the Manna sisters were reluctant to settle for a 0-0 stalemate.
Maynard had a pair of chances to take the lead, but Belanger was able to preserve the shutout. The Lady Tigers’ final chance of the evening came off the shod foot of Brenna Smith. Smith elevated a curving shot, but Belanger punched it out of danger in stoppage time.
While the result is disappointing, Carlson is satisfied with what his team has accomplished.
“I told them before the game to just play hard for 80 minutes,” the coach said. “I think they did that. It’s a lot of hard work that goes into the season. Unfortunately in soccer, it can end in ties. I don’t know what another five minutes would have done, but the girls really wanted it.”