PROVIDENCE — A season full of near-misses against the state’s top teams hit its closest call yet, and it was a heartbreaker for the South County Storm.
The co-op squad forced overtime with 37 seconds left in Thursday’s semifinal matchup with top-seeded La Salle at Schneider Arena. But the Rams responded with the game-winner in the extra session for a 3-2 victory, punching their ticket to the final and ending South County’s title hopes.
“Obviously, we would have liked to go further,” South County coach Tom McCarthy said. “I really wanted it for my seniors. But I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished this year and I’m excited for what’s to come.”
South County lost to La Salle by two goals and one goal in a pair of regular season meetings. Against No. 2 Smithfield, the Storm tied one matchup and lost the others by one goal and two goal margins.
The Storm was seeking its first championship berth since it won the state title in 2017. The semifinal round has been unkind to the Storm since then – four straight semifinal appearances have ended in defeat, many in excruciating fashion.
With the RIIL’s new playoff format this year – which has single-elimination games in the semifinals and finals instead of the traditional series setup – the Storm knew it would have as good a shot as it’s had in any of its semifinal trips. And they delivered the kind of effort needed to spring the upset over the Rams, rallying from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits.
The second of those comebacks came in the final minute of the third period. With the goalie pulled for an extra skater, Eva Bouard collected the puck on the right wing and put a shot on net. La Salle goalie Kate Grivers made the initial stop, but amid a scrum in front, Ginger Osgood hacked away at the rebound and knocked it into the net.
With 31 seconds left, the game was tied.
“The message at the beginning of this game was that we needed to stack wins,” McCarthy said. “Meaning, win the race to the puck, win the battle on the boards, win the battle in front of the net. That was a perfect example of a kid who played about half the game digging down deep and finding the back of the net when we needed it.”
In overtime, both teams applied pressure. South County’s best came when Julianna Bucci streaked into the slot and took a pass from behind the net, but she was hit before she could get a shot off. Later, goalie Meredith Mason made a terrific glove save for the Storm on a point-blank shot.
But with 30 seconds remaining, the Rams broke through. A shot from the point was blocked by a defender in front. The puck caromed to Bridie Murphy who tipped it to Adriana Dooley in the slot. She quickly swept it into the net for the game-winner.
“Having done this for a while, you’d love to win them all but you know you’re not going to,” McCarthy said. “All we asked for today was to come out, play as a team, support each other, win battles. That’s what I watched the girls do out there tonight. With the single-elimination format, it’s all about grit and how you play with your backs against the wall. To come back and tie it with 31 seconds left and play seven hard minutes of overtime, you can’t ask for anything more.”
Before the late drama, La Salle had used an opening-minute power play to take the lead, with Julia LaForge scoring just 46 seconds into the game. The Storm trailed for the entirety of the first period and most of the second until pulling even with 4:06 remaining. Payton Abrams sent the puck to the net from the goal line on the right and it bounced off Grivers and in to make it 1-1.
The Rams regained the lead with 27 seconds left in the period on a goal by Murphy, who muscled in a rebound.
Mason was strong in net all night, making a whopping 32 saves and holding La Salle to one of its lowest scoring outputs of the season.
“I can’t say enough about Meredith Mason,” McCarthy said. “She started playing not just goalie but hockey two years ago. She got an opportunity to step up this year, she grinded it out in practice every day. She’s taken it and run with it.”
The defeat ended another strong year for the Storm, which has cemented itself as one of the top programs in the state. With its young core still in the fold, the team will be looking for more next year.
“The goal this year was to build a hockey program, with a solid culture as the foundation,” McCarthy said. “That’s what I watched these girls do every single day. The fun part as a coach was I got to watch them see how that translates into wins and goals and good plays.”
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