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By Michael Flanagan
Hometown Weekly Sports Editor
It’s not often that Needham High soccer is the underdog come playoff time, but after a 9-7-4 regular season, the Rockets found themselves in some unfamiliar territory heading into the Division I South Sectionals as the No. 11 seed.
In order to reach the South Finals for the second consecutive season, the Needham boys would have to win three consecutive games away from their home turf, beginning last Friday night on the Cape against No. 6 Barnstable. Behind a strong performance in net by senior goalkeeper Andrew McNally, the Rockets prevailed with a 3-0 upset victory to move onto the quarterfinals against No. 3 New Bedford, whom Needham eliminated in the first round in 2016. Goals by Vali Tenbrook, Alejandro Agualimpia, and Steven Donovan carried the Rockets to a 3-1 win, ousting New Bedford for the second straight season and setting Needham up for a date with Bay State Conference rival Weymouth on Thursday, a rematch of last season’s South semifinals, which the Rockets won 3-2.
Thursday night’s meeting with Weymouth at Braintree High School was the exact opposite of last season’s five-goal semifinal matchup with the Wildcats, as stout defensive play and goaltending kept the game scoreless at the end of regulation. Two overtime periods were not enough to decide the match, largely thanks to an amazing diving save by McNally with 6:20 remaining in the first overtime. Still without a goal and the clock having struck zeros in double overtime, the fate of the game came down to penalty kicks, which of late has been Weymouth’s strong suit; the Wildcats entered Thursday’s tilt coming off a 3-2 win on penalty kicks over Wellesley in the quarterfinals.
Needham missed its first penalty kick and Weymouth knocked their first attempt home to take a 1-0 advantage. However, Forrest Shimazu, Liam Fidurko, and Ryan Fleck then stepped up and nailed their attempts for Needham, followed by an incredible save by McNally on Weymouth’s fourth attempt to keep the shootout tied at three apiece. Sam Keenan stepped in and launched home a goal on Needham’s fifth penalty kick attempt, setting up a chance for McNally to send the Rockets back to the South finals with a save. On the fifth and final penalty kick for Weymouth, McNally guessed correctly and dove to his right, knocking the ball away for an amazing game-winning save, as the Rockets stormed the field in celebration and mobbed their heroic keeper.
On Saturday, the Rockets dropped a heartbreaker to top-seeded Brockton, 1-0, in the South Finals, ending an incredible playoff run.
For funny and incisive sports analysis, follow Mike Flanagan on his personal Twitter at @fLAno0, or read his blog at www.flannylive.wordpress.com.