Late in the first half during an early September contest with Frewsburg, Maple Grove goaltender Lauren Nickerson rushed out to scoop up a loose ball and collided with a Bears' player. Nickerson was injured on the play - always among the most dangerous for goalkeepers - and missed the second half of that game and the one that followed before she was able to return to action.
So on Wednesday, when an strikingly similar situation presented itself in the Lady Red Dragons' battle with Salamanca, it would have been understandable for the senior goaltender to think twice about possibly sacrificing herself yet again.
Understandable, perhaps, but the thought clearly never entered Nickerson's mind.
Alex Novotny of Maple Grove (2) heads in the winning goal off a corner kick by Emma Franczak during the Lady Red Dragons’ 1-0 Division 2 girls soccer win over Salamanca on Wednesday night. See additional photos at cu.post-journal.com.
P-J photos by Rob Tucker
"You've got to be fearless when you're playing goalie and she came right out and protected the goal," Maple Grove coach Mike Burr said. "She knew the game was on the line at that point, and to have somebody that fearless and that skilled in the net really helps."'
Holding a tenuous, 1-0 advantage over the visiting Lady Warriors (9-4-1, 8-3-1) with less than five minutes remaining in the game, Nickerson reached that bouncing ball just moments before the collision (she managed to avoid injury this time), preserving the shutout and leading the Lady Red Dragons, who remain undefeated at 14-0 overall and 12-0 in Division 2, to their third straight league title.
"I'm very proud, it was a good win," Burr said of the game, which was played in windy, wet (with a little hail mixed in) and near-freezing conditions. "It's a good feeling (to win the division) and to stay undefeated is always a bonus. These girls work their tails off and it's good to see that hard work and grittiness come through when you need it."
Nickerson, who also made what Burr called a "great save" in the first half when she dove to stop a header by Salamanca's Alyssa Coustenis at the 35-minute mark, finished with 10 stops, and the shutout was the 46th of her career. She has now allowed just one goal this season - to Cassadaga Valley on September 26 - owns a .985 save percentage and a .087 goals against average over nearly 1,000 minutes played in the nets.
After a scoreless first half, Maple Grove broke through with the eventual game-winning goal just five minutes into the second. With renewed focus on accurate passing to account for the conditions, the Lady Red Dragons moved down the field and, with heavy pressure on the Salamanca defense, were soon awarded a corner kick.
Emma Franczak took the corner kick, lofting a high-arching pass into the area, and teammate Alex Novotny headed the ball home for her team-leading 12th goal of the season.
"I thought, considering how damp it was, that we possessed the ball pretty well," Burr said of the adjustments that led to the goal. "I was really happy with that, especially in the second half. It was one of the things we focused on - making sure the passes and touches were to people's feet because it was so wet that the ball was just going to skid by (otherwise).
Salamanca did its best to score the equalizer and in a frantic final few minutes nearly scored on multiple occasions. Each time, however, either Nickerson was there to make the stop or the defense in front of her was there to deny the shot. Finally, with just 11 seconds remaining the Lady Warriors had one last shot to score when they were fouled just outside the area, but Micky Tinnerman's free kick was blocked by the Maple Grove wall and time ran out.
"It was helter-skelter, that's for sure," Burr said of the finish. "A little too frantic in the last 10 minutes. (Salamanca) played tough and put a lot of pressure on us, but our defense stepped up."
Maple Grove will be looking to make it 15 wins in a row, and a fourth-straight shutout, on Friday at 4 p.m. against host Randolph.