Girls hockey: Longmeadow rallies past Pope Francis 3-2 to sweep Western Mass. Cup (PHOTOS)

Pope Francis players celebrate around goal scorer Madison Dunaj (11) in the first period against Longmeadow on Wednesday night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield.

Pope Francis players celebrate around goal scorer Madison Dunaj (11) in the first period against Longmeadow on Wednesday night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Pope Francis’ Lily Hayes (10) skates into the Longmeadow zone on Wednesday night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield.

Pope Francis’ Lily Hayes (10) skates into the Longmeadow zone on Wednesday night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Pope Francis’ Ela Rabidoux (6) dumps the puck on net while defended by Longmeadow’s Graciella Coughlin (23) on Wednesday night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield.

Pope Francis’ Ela Rabidoux (6) dumps the puck on net while defended by Longmeadow’s Graciella Coughlin (23) on Wednesday night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Pope Francis’ Kaitlyn Ondrick (88) and Longmeadow’s Margo Watkins (22) skate together on Wednesday night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield.

Pope Francis’ Kaitlyn Ondrick (88) and Longmeadow’s Margo Watkins (22) skate together on Wednesday night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

Pope Francis’ Giada Musa (21) holds possession of the puck in front of Longmeadow’s Milana Shuman (15) on Wednesday night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield.

Pope Francis’ Giada Musa (21) holds possession of the puck in front of Longmeadow’s Milana Shuman (15) on Wednesday night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-07-2024 9:43 PM

WESTFIELD — It didn’t take long for the Longmeadow girls hockey team to strike first.

Less than three minutes into Wednesday night’s all-Western Mass. showdown against Pope Francis, Lancers captain Maeve Doherty found the back of the net off an assist from Milana Shuman. Longmeadow seized early control of the second of two contests between the two western Mass. powerhouse girls hockey programs that feature several Hampshire County players on each team.

Pope Francis didn’t seem fazed one bit.

The Cardinals responded with the game’s next two goals, and took a 2-1 lead into the third period on their Senior Night at Amelia Park Arena in Westfield. But the Lancers took their turn to score two unanswered goals, and a Shuman shot from the slot that beat Pope Francis goaltender Felix Goeckel stood as the game winner in Longmeadow’s 3-2 win.

“It’s always a battle with them,” Lancers head coach Melissa Vandermyn said. “A lot of the girls know each other so it makes it a fun rivalry. High tempo, high intensity, and everybody on our side stayed focused. They played great and they stayed focused, too. It was a great matchup.”

Wednesday marked the second time in three weeks the two teams squared off. Longmeadow won 3-1 back on Jan. 19 in a game in which it never trailed. Vandermyn noticed the progression that both teams – each of whom are ranked in the top 10 in the latest MIAA power rankings in their respective division – have shown since their last meeting.

“I think both teams have progressed quite a bit,” she said. “We’ve gotten some more games under our belt, seen some different opponents, seen some different systems… I’d say overall both teams were a little bit more disciplined, which made it an even better matchup than it was the first time.”

After Doherty’s goal gave Longmeadow a 1-0 lead, the next 25 minutes were all Pope Francis. With 6:18 remaining in the first period, Madison Dunaj got the Cardinals on the board with a shot from the point that Lancers goalie Nicole Pollard never saw. The game went into the first intermission tied at one apiece.

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Midway through the second, Pope Francis was celebrating again. Senior captain Ela Rabidoux dangled the puck through traffic and into the attacking zone. She lost the puck momentarily, but regained possession to fake out another Longmeadow defender. One moment later, Rabidoux flicked a back-hand shot over the left shoulder Pollard to take a 2-1 lead.

The Cardinals took a 15-11 shots-on-goal advantage into the third period. Pope Francis head coach Chris Connors was pleased with the way his team responded following the quick first-period deficit.

“We have a veteran group that has been in big games before,” Connors said. “We knew we didn’t have our best stuff in the first period, but to get that goal to tie it and then actually go ahead showed the maturity this group has.”

Late in the second period, Pope Francis goalie Felix Goeckel, of Amherst, came up huge to preserve the Cardinals lead. After a turnover in their defensive zone, the junior was left one-on-one with a Longmeadow forward in the slot and nobody in the way. Goeckel saved the first attempt, and as the rebound trickled off to the side, another Lancers player put it on net.

But Goeckel was there again, sprawling out to make a gorgeous right-legged save to keep Pope Francis ahead 2-1 – the score through two periods.

Goeckel’s prowess in the crease is nothing new to Connors.

“That kid is just the best,” he said of his starting netminder. “I just marvel at how she carries herself on and off the ice. Not many 16-year-olds get it, but she gets it. She’s the backbone of our team and she’s certainly kept us in some big games over the last three years.”

That set up goals from Ava Saunders and Shuman, as Longmeadow stormed from behind to win and sweep the season series.

Although the loss spoiled Pope Francis’ senior night, it doesn’t take away from what the group has accomplished over the last four years – bringing a program that was formed in 2020 to competing against the top programs in Division 1 across the state.

Ela Rabidoux, Nadiya Champigny, Lily Hayes, Mckenzie Deperry, Ivorie Arguin, Grace Sands and Kaitlyn Ondrick each were recognized prior to the game as the team’s seven seniors – who have all made a tremendous impact on the program, according to Connors.

“They have put Pope Francis girls hockey on the map,” Connors said. “We were a no-name program four years ago, just came into inception. To be ranked in the Division 1 top 10, and some of the teams we have beaten, just their heart and desire and dedication... it speaks volumes to the type of kids they are.”

Pope Francis (10-5-1) travels to Duxbury on Saturday with puck drop scheduled for 5:40 p.m.

Longmeadow (10-3-1) is off until Feb. 19 when it visits Arlington Catholic at 3 p.m.