SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Early goals were key Sunday as the Lenox girls and boys soccer teams each earned Western Massachusetts Division 4 Championships at Springfield Central High School.
Solia Herndon-Schmid scored twice in the first eight minutes, in what Lenox girls coach Kyle Zinchuk called a “dream start,” propelling the Millionaires to a 3-0 win over Granby.
In the nightcap, JT Novitsky scored in the fourth minute, and Lenox’s defense withstood furious pressure from Monson to take a 2-0 win.
It was the third straight sectional title for the Lenox boys. The Lenox girls won after losing in the Western Mass final three of the last four years.
“I’m so happy for Coach Zinchuk,” said boys coach Camilo Bermudez, in the first year of his second stint at Lenox. “After so many years. He puts in so much work with that team. I am so proud of them.”
Lenox - which won a state championship in girls cross country on Saturday -- will send both its soccer teams to the state semifinals on Tuesday In Marlborough.
Lenox senior Erin Czelusniak had no trouble explaining her team's fast start.
"In our huddle before the game, we were all talking, and more than anything, we were really looking to just have fun the entire game," Czelusniak said. "We were all pumped up, all laughing.
"I think that's what really unites us as a team, and we're able to string some nice passes together because, ultimately, when we're having fun, that's when we play the best.
"And I can honestly say I had fun the entire day today. This was so fun. I enjoyed my time so much."
She enjoyed a big opening down the left wing side in the third minute, and Czelusniak capitalized with a shot across the goal mouth that rang off the far post.
Herndon-Schmid was there to clean up the rebound and give the Millionaires an early 1-0 lead.
Lenox caught the top-seeded Rams (14-5-2) flat-footed again five minutes later.
This time, Czelusniak got thing started with a throw-in from the left side. Mary Elliot tipped the ball across to Aliza Munch, who sent it into the 18 toward Herndon-Schmid.
The Granby defense had trouble controlling and eventually redirected the ball back toward Herndon-Schmid who took a touch, took a turn an fired a shot past a diving keeper to put Lenox up, 2-0.
There were still 72 minutes left in the match, but this was a Lenox team that posted seven shutouts already this fall, including three straight to open the season.
Zinchuk liked his team's chances to hold onto the two-goal advantage.
"You don't want to take anything for granted for sure, but I was hopeful that if we could get, you know, one or two on the board, knowing how good the defense has been and how good Soph [Patella] can be in goal, you start to feel pretty confident about your chances," he said.
"I kept reminding them ... there's a long game left to go, a lot of soccer left. I don't feel I started to feel relaxed until we got that third goal."
Indeed, Granby rallied after half-time, earning two corner kicks and a shot on goal in the first two minutes of the second half. Patella (10 saves) and the Lenox defense was equal to the challenge.
But the Rams also suffered a little bad luck in their quest to cut into the lead. Midway through the second half, Granby earned a pair of direct free kicks about 30 yards from the goal that Rams senior Nora Young sent just high of the crossbar.
"The first 10 minutes of the second half were a little bit stressful," Czelusniak admitted. "After we got those two goals, we can't assume that's a cushion. Two-zero is like the mos dangerous lead you can have in soccer. Some people let it get into their heads.
"But we really tried to work hard the whole time. ... We had a couple of slippages. Maybe we didn't have as much possession, but I'm glad we got back and were able to persevere through the whole game."
With just more than nine minutes on the clock, Czelusniak took a pass from Molly Knight about 40 yards from goal, brought the ball forward about eight yards and then drilled a shot into the back of the net to put the game out of reach.
"I have said so many times that I wish I could have a big boot like this kid on the boys team, Sam Schnopp, who has the biggest boot I've ever seen and he's the tiniest kid ever," Czelusniak said. "Honestly, that's not a shot I normally take. I normally like to drive up the line. But that time I just had a lot of adrenaline, I guess, and got a lot of power behind it and it worked out."
And things worked out for the Millionaires (11-8-1), who can put two straight losses in the sectional final in the rear-view mirror and look ahead to Tuesday's state semi-final against Central champ (14-3-2), a 3-0 winner in its sectional final last week.
"I think this year, it was really an 'us against everybody' mentality," Zinchuk said. "Because I think a lot of people were looking at us saying: You lost seven seniors, all of these starters, you're probably going to take a step back this year.
"And those girls never listened to any of that. We had to find a new identity, we knew we had girls stepping up. We went through injuries and different losing streaks. But we kept fighting, kept working to get better, knowing that we'd get our chance."
Novitsky's early goal gave Lenox a lift.
The Millionaires' defense held Monson down.
"The defense played amanzing," said Andre Collins, who added a late insurance goal. "Cooper [Shepardson], Sam [Schnopp], Brady [Mickle] all played 80 minutes, didn't come off once and were so clutch under pressure.
"They deserve all the credit in the world for this. I love our defense."
Save some credit for keeper Daniel Munch, who made 10 saves -- seven in the second half.
Novitsky got the match started in the right direction less than four minutes in.
The senior captain finished off the game's first corner kick opportunity by putting back the rebound of his own shot with a header that gave the Millionaires a 1-0 lead.
Monson keeper Trenton Hill denied Lenox on its next five shots on goal to keep the Mustangs in the match.
And with about 10 minutes left in the first half, the tide turned in a big way.
Monson outshot Lenox, 10-4, over the last 50 minutes, and the Mustangs (9-9-3) earned four corner kicks to just one for the Millionaires (11-8) in the second half.
But Lenox's defense stood tall to earn its third straight shutout of the post-season after earning just two shutouts in the regular season this fall.
Bermudez attributed Lenox's rigorous regular season schedule with preparing his side for the pressure it faced on Sunday.
"They really figured it out," Bermudez said of the Mustangs. "They were bodying us in the middle, they were physical. It's been a while since we played a team that big.
"But we absorbed the pressure. We've been doing that all year against the bigger [Berkshire County North Division] teams. When we play [Mount] Greylock or [Pittsfield], that's sort of what the games look like. So we were prepared for that kind of pressure.
"We absorbed it, and just like all season we didn't give up that goal."
Lenox got a big defensive play to keep it a one-goal game with about 14 minutes left.
The Millionaires were whistled for a delay of game on a goal kick, and Monson earned a rare indirect free kick inside the penalty area. The Mustangs got off a hard shot on goal, but Schnopp was able to deflect it out of danger.
In the 63rd minute, Monson's Logan Gerry got a dangerous opportunity inside the 6-yard-box off a direct kick from just over midfield, but Munch made the save to keep it 1-0.
Moments later, inside the five-minute mark, Cameron Abdallah set up Collins at the top of the 18, and the junior finished to give Lenox's players and fans a reason to breath a sigh of relief.
"We saw it earlier, and I missed one in that exact same situation," Collins said. "When we were getting it wide, it would pull everyone over, and then the middle pass was there. Except we didn't get the first one.
"Being under pressure, it was so stressful. All we were focused on was getting the ball out. So, when I got that, it was like a hundred pound weight lifted of all of us. It was crazy."