With the sectional tournament pairings coming out on Wednesday, the nationally ranked and undefeated Central Catholic girls’ soccer team should be seeded first in Division 1 North and a favorite to win the state championship.
Amid all of the Raiders’ success this season, a long shadow has been cast over fellow Merrimack Valley Conference team Chelmsford — and the 12-2-4 Lions enter the postseason overlooked but primed to compete.
After 11 years of not qualifying for the tournament, Chelmsford made a big impression when they returned to the dance in 2011. That year, the 15th-ranked Lions took down second-seeded Lincoln-Sudbury in penalty kicks after playing to a scoreless tie through double overtime.
Chelmsford followed that win with a come-from-behind, 3-2 victory over seventh-ranked Newton North, scoring the winning goal just as time expired. One more win over North Andover in the semifinals sent the Lions to the Division 1 North finals against eventual state champion Peabody.
Chelmsford’s 2011 was a Cinderella year to say the least. It was also coach Anne Marinaro’s first year at the helm of the Lions.
In her sophomore season, the Lions once again qualified for the postseason and again faced Lincoln-Sudbury in the first round. In the rematch, however, the Warriors prevailed in penalty kicks to break a 1-1 deadlock.
Marinaro is now in her third season and has one senior and seven juniors on her roster that played during the special 2011 season. This time around, the Lions are older and more experienced. They also have their best regular season record of this millennium.
“I think that previous experience in the state tournament is critical,’’ said Marinaro. “And they have been on both sides. They know what it feels like to lose a close game and what it takes to win a close game.
“They have the experience of knowing any team can score with zero seconds on the clock.’’
Leading the team this year is senior captain Rachel Hanna. She is the sister of former Chelmsford star forward Megan Hanna and is the only senior in the Lions’ starting line up.
Hanna leads the team in scoring with 12 goals and five assists — she scored five goals as a center midfielder in Chelmsford’s last two games.
“Rachel is a very instinctual player and just a very natural player,’’ said Marinaro, who praised Hanna’s strength on defense in addition to her talent on offense. “She’s just a very special player; it’s hard to put into words. She just services and delivers the ball in one fluid motion.’’
Junior Patricia Blumeris has notched 11 goals and three assists for the Lions, making her the team’s second leading scorer.
“She’s just a force on the field,’’ said Marinaro of Blumeris. “Her offensive air game is spectacular. She scores a lot of her goals out of the air.
“Overall we have just a very, very special group of juniors,’’ Marinaro added. “This group of juniors came in as freshmen and have been playing with me the past three years. They know each other well, they like each other a lot, and they work hard for one another.
Her juniors play a significant roll on the other side of the ball as well. Two of them, Kayla Loycano and Mary Lupoli, anchor the Lions’ defense.
“I will say that our defense is one of the strongest in the state and I say that with 16 years experience at the high school level,’’ said Marinaro. “They are tough and smart and they’re intuitive. We’ve played in 18 games and have 13 shutouts, and only 11 goals against.’’
Chelmsford’s two other starting backs are sophomore Kiana Lally and freshman Guilia Rabbito — who Marinaro calls “fearless’’ and “a freshman that plays like a senior.’’
The backline plays in front of first year goalkeeper, sophomore Claire Markey. She stepped up to fill big shoes when MVC goalkeeper of the year Brianna Raymond graduated and moved on to play for Salem State.
Seven of the goals Chelmsford has allowed were against Central Catholic, a 5-1 loss the third game into the season and a 2-0 loss earlier this month. Marinaro is proud of the fact that her Lions were the only team to score against the Raiders all season long (a penalty kick scored by junior Michelle Materna).
Although the Lions didn’t beat Central Catholic or win the MVC title, they did accomplish one goal that was very important to Marinaro and her players: defeat conference rival Andover for the first time. In two matchups against the Golden Warriors this year, Chelmsford came away with a 0-0 tie and a 3-1 win.
“I think as a whole our team complements each line very well. I think we play nicely as a unit and we have strength across the bored,’’ said Marinaro. “They know when we step on the field we work our butts off, but we have fun too.’’
The regular season is now over and the Lions are now looking ahead to the Division 1 North tournament, a place they have found success and disappointment in recent years. Although Marinaro says it would be nice to be in the bracket without Central Catholic, she knows her team can play with the best of them.
“We were the underdog and our record wasn’t spectacular [in the past] and I think we caught people off guard,’’ said Marinaro.
“I love the postseason,’’ she added. “It’s just so fun to watch because it becomes who can really play with who, who has the wheels left after playing 100 minutes of soccer.’’