By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

Interstate 89 South traffic will be a bit busier than usual Friday afternoon.

That’s because the Hanover High and Lebanon boys soccer teams are playing for state titles, back-to-back at Nashua’s Stellos Stadium, the Marauders in NHIAA Division I and the Raiders in Division II. Third-seeded Lebanon faces top-seeded Oyster River at 5:30 p.m. and third-seeded Hanover challenges top-seeded Nashua South thereafter.

Hanover’s Owen Smith leaps in front of Lebanon’s Nick Brill during the teams’ Aug. 17, 2021, scrimmage at Merriman-Branch Field. The Raiders won, 2-0. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Student and fan relations between the Upper Valley neighbors are better now than they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago. I graduated from Hanover in 1989 and joined in mean-spirited razzing of the “Lebbies”. I watched classmates engage in fist fights in the stands, hallways and parking lots with those redneck jerks we felt certain were different than us, downright contemptible. 

“That’s all right, that’s ok, you’ll all work for us one day!” we chanted at a home basketball game, during which Lebanon and its current principal, Ian Smith, ran around, past and over our squad. Hanover’s student council penned an apology. Two weeks later, we shouted insulting remarks at the Raiders cheerleaders and another apology went into the mail. 

Lebanon’s Seth Carl traps the ball with his chest in front of Hanover’s Murphy Hunt during the teams’ Aug. 27, 2019, preseason scrimmage. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Fast forward six years and I was a cub reporter in Los Angeles and writing about Glendale High’s boys soccer team. Its Armenian members had been mocked by opposing parents for speaking in their native language during a match. Although there was mild disapproval, it was nothing remotely like what would result today.

“That’s where the Northern Mexicans sit and the Southern Mexicans are over there,” the Glendale coach told me days later as we watched the lunch rush in the school’s outdoor courtyard. “The Koreans, they’re in that corner and the Armenians hang there. Nobody messes with the guys from El Salvador, but you don’t want trouble with the Guatemalans, either.”

Hanover’s Matt Walsh splits Lebanon defenders during a 2013 elementary school-level tournament in West Lebanon. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

The white kids? They were a minority and in that moment, I realized that Hanover and Lebanon students are indistinguishable in the big world picture. 

Which brings me back to this fall. Two weeks ago, questionable event management placed the Lebanon student section directly behind the Hanover football bench at Merriman-Branch Field. The Raiders pinned a shutout on the home team, which was pelted with gleeful bon mots from visitors hanging over the raised fence.

Standing ready with warnings and glares, Smith, vice principal Kieth Matte and athletic director Mike Stone could only do so much. There was an imminent sense that the wrong taunt at the wrong moment could spark genuine anger.

Lebanon High soccer coach Rob Johnstone, left, and Hanover counterpart Rob Grabill watch their programs scrimmage on June 16, 2019. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

And then… clarity. Hanover lineman Patrick Elder, the son of Lebanon High math teacher Torey Cutting Elder, suffered an agonizing leg injury. He was carried to the sidelines and examined on a training table not 10 feet from the bleachers’ edge. What a nightmare: hurt, losing and laid out under the acne-dotted noses of your arch-rivals. 

Suddenly, however, Smith and Co. weren’t needed. An empathetic silence hung in air scented by the concession stand’s grille as Lebanon students confronted a peer’s physical and emotional pain. Elder was carted away 10 minutes later and the Lebanon teenagers chanted “Paddy! Paddy!” as he disappeared into the dark.

Which brings me back to Friday, when the Marauders (yes, I know they’ll soon be the Bearhawks) and the Raiders will overlap at Stellos and the temptation to resume the towns’ athletic disrespect will arise. 

What if, instead, we cheered for each other? What if Hanover’s Rob Grabill and Lebanon’s Rob Johnstone, the programs’ longtime coaches and fast friends, looked into the stands and heard a roar from not one but TWO student sections? 

Zach Tracy, left, and Easton Wykes tangle during a long-ago beginners’ soccer clinic on the Norwich Green. Tracy is now a sophomore midfielder for Hanover and Wykes a junior goalkeeper for Lebanon. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

What if Lightning Soccer Club players on both rosters rooted unequivocally for each other and, leading by example, brought their friends into the mix?

What if those same football players who pounded each other relentlessly two weeks ago rooted not for revenge by proxy, but for the their futbol brethren to raise two championship plaques two hours apart?

Then the road to victory might seem less daunting, those top-seeded foes more vulnerable. The night could be a celebration of the Upper Valley’s amazing soccer culture, one planted with preschoolers booting balls across the Norwich Green and at Lebanon’s Eldridge Park. 

Hanover’s Murphy Hunt, left, races Lebanon’s Angus Hall for the ball during a July 1, 2019, summer-league game at the Plainfield School. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

These young men have not only played soccer against each other and with each other, but also ice hockey and baseball and basketball. Lebanon and Hanover students follow each other on social media and cross town lines to hang with boyfriends and girlfriends and just plain old friends. 

The Friday night lights don’t have to illuminate our differences. They can expose old suspicions and class distinctions and render them moot.

Go Raiders. Go Bearhawks. Go together with the soccer gods.

Tris Wykes lives in Lebanon and is the father of a Raiders player. His late parents, Pat and David, lived on Hanover’s Haskins Road for roughly 40 years and he is grateful to them for tolerating a soccer ball repeatedly pounding into the side of their house.

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Birhanu Harriman, right, enjoys a fun moment with his middle school teammates in 2018. He is now a junior striker for Lebanon High. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.