The Big Blue will compete for its first-ever North title Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at Manning against the winner of Thursday's semifinal between No. 16 Wayland and No. 5 Newburyport.
An early goal from freshman Mackenzie Kearney set the tone for Swampscott in the first four minutes of action, and the Big Blue didn't look back from there. Kearney scored twice and Northeastern Conference MVP Haley Bernhardt added a goal on a penalty kick, while the Swampscott defense, backed by goalie Nikki Rosa, totally smothered the Cougars offense.
Though Austin Prep maintained possession in Swampscott's defensive end through the first two minutes of play, it didn't take long for the momentum to shift. Kearney stayed with a through pass up the middle from Bernhardt and beat Austin Prep goalie Sam MacCormack, getting tangled up with the keeper in front of the net. The shot bounced in, and it was all the offense Swampscott needed.
"That first goal was huge, because we didn't have to score any more," Swampscott coach Alvi Ibanez said. "I could see the anxiety building and the (Cougars coach Tim Phelan) telling his team to push up. They took their center defender and pushed her up even further, which gave us more room, and I said 'okay, bring it on.'"
Austin Prep responded right away, with Dani Rich's shot hitting the crossbar and bouncing out of bounds. It was just about the only clean, uncontested shot the Cougars took during the first half.
With 16 minutes to play in the half, Kearney was again at the center of a big play. She was tripped up in the box, resulting in a penalty kick. Bernhardt took the shot and buried high and to MacCormack's left for a 2-0 Big Blue lead.
"It created great momentum, scoring early like that is huge," Ibanez said. "The PK was the frosting on the cake. A 2-0 deficit, it's really hard to come back from that."
The second goal really took the wind out of Austin Prep's sails, and Ibanez says he was able to play a more defensive game, sacrificing some offense for smothering defense.
"I changed what I did, played more defensive," Ibanez said. "(Austin Prep) had to push up to try and score, and guess what, you leave the backfield open, and we might pop the third one in, and that happened. It was picture perfect for us."
Bernhardt nearly added to the lead in the final minutes of the half, but MacCormack scooped up the shot. The Cougars came out firing after the break, and forced Rosa to make a big save. Rich sent a nice pass to Mia Han, who tried to sneak it past Rosa near the goalpost, but Rosa cleared the ball to end the threat.
Swampscott's third goal really showcased the 1-2 punch of Bernhardt and Kearney. Bernhardt shook off a defender and led Kearney with a pass to the goal. Kearney's shot bounced off an Austin Prep defender and in to ice the win.
"For a freshman to step up and produce like that was huge," Ibanez said of Kearney. "She compliments Haley, because then you can't double-team Haley. You leave Mackenzie open. The reason why it showed today more than any other game is because we scored early. The other team had to spread out, and you could see the speed of our forwards. It was a good game for her."
The win was a long time coming for the Big Blue. Swampscott has come within striking distance of the North final in each of the last three seasons, but each time fell just short. In 2014, a 1-0 loss to North Reading in the semifinals ended Swampscott's season. In 2015, it was a 1-0 loss to Bishop Fenwick, also in the semis. Last year might have been the most gut-wrenching loss, as North Reading defeated the Big Blue in penalty kicks in the semis.
The Big Blue had to deal with North Reading early this postseason, topping it 2-1 in overtime in the first round. Since then, however, the Big Blue defense hasn't allowed a goal in the postseason with a shutout win over Weston preceding the win over the Cougars.