By Tris Wykes

HANOVER – Because of Covid-19 precautions, Saturday’s NHIAA boys soccer game between Hanover High and archrival Lebanon those who watched were mostly Marauders parents. No Raiders fans were allowed at Merriman-Branch Field.

That’s a shame, because the host team’s 2-1 comeback victory was a doozy. The Raiders, who reached the Division II title game last season, opened the scoring with 15 minutes remaining but couldn’t hang on against the defending Division I champions.

Hanover High’s Pierce Hamlin (3) soars after a ball in the Lebanon end Saturday during the NHIAA teams’ season opener Saturday at Merriman-Branch Field. The host Marauders won, 2-1.

“Everyone knows that this was really a Division I game,” said Hanover coach Rob Grabill, whose squad returns only two starters but nonetheless boasts a loaded roster. “With 15 minutes left, it was tick, tick, tick, but our kids didn’t panic.

“They kept the ball on the floor and we generated a lot of shots in those last 15 minutes.”

The deciding shot came with four minutes remaining. It was a header from leaping defender Evan Nichols, who soared in front of Raiders goalkeeper Ryan Tanski to knock a Dylan Kotlowitz corner kick inside the near post. 

The Lyme resident and son of former Hanover soccer star Heidi Weider Nichols, Evan is a member of the U.S. junior Olympic ski jumping team.

“We’ve been working at getting him isolated on corner kicks,” Grabill said. “He’s always been a great header of the ball, offensively and defensively.”

Hanover took 18 shots to Lebanon’s five and held a 10-0 advantage in corner kicks, but the game was more evenly matched than those statistics would suggest. The Raiders, who lost seven starters to graduation and are debuting three new fullbacks and goalkeeper Tanski, took the lead after picking off a Marauders clearing attempt 30 yards from the Hanover goal.

Midfielder Tyler St. Martin, a four-year starter, found senior newcomer Emmanuel Bello with a perfectly placed ball through the defense’s center. The forward and London native was off to the races, his short deadlocks bouncing as he seemed powered by a booster rocket.

“It was a whole new gear and he wasn’t going to pass that thing,” said Lebanon coach Rob Johnstone, who entered the season unsure of how long he could deploy Bello, who last played a game in March of 2019.

Bello chased down the ball and, in alone on sophomore goalkeeper Ty Nolan, slid a shot inside the right post.

“Tyler and I made eye contact and I knew what to do and he timed the pass perfectly,” Bello said, his grin revealing shiny orthodontic braces. “I knew I was going to score.”

The son of a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center nurse whose family only moved to the area last winter, Bello said he didn’t sleep well the night before the game.

“I was a bit restless,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect from Hanover and I wanted to play my best, to have an effect on the game.”

Lebanon High’s Emmanuel Bello is obscured by celebrating teammates including Alex Felix (9) after scoring to give the Raiders the lead at Hanover on Saturday. The Raiders’ Aidan Yates (14) and Simon Amaro (2) join in the fun. Hanover rallied, however, for a 2-1 NHIAA victory during the teams’ season opener Saturday at Merriman-Branch Field.

Although Johnstone refused to admit that a victory would have been an upset, it would have left most Lebanon fans surprised and delighted. Such a result was not to be, however, after a Marauders corner kick with 10 minutes to play.

Settling the feed and cranking off a wicked shot was junior Eric Ringer, a returning starter whose four goals last season included a couple at crucial times. The midfielder’s effort caromed off a Lebanon defender, spun wildly upon bouncing and rolled into the net’s far side. Tanski clutched his gloved hands to his head in disbelief.

“We teach guys to try and block shots,” Johnstone said. “He was doing what he was supposed to do.”

The Raiders coach also absolved Tanski of fault on the winning goal. 

“If you whip the ball in there like they did, with real pace, the goalie has a millisecond to make a choice on how to play it,” Johnstone said. “It was a great service and a great header.”

Lebanon visits Stevens at 7:30 p.m. on Monday while Hanover visits Fall Mountain on Tuesday at 4 p.m.

Notes: Bello is a fan of the English Premier League club Arsenal… Lebanon midfielder Simon Amaro vomited behind the visiting bench during the second half, moments before Johnstone called for him to re-enter the game. The junior gave his coach a hearty thumbs up, patted his stomach twice and trotted back into play… Merriman-Branch Field features custom-built wooden scaffolding outside the fence and at both ends upon which the soccer goals are hoisted onto and out of the way when football is being played.

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Lebanon High’s Ryan Oliveira jumps past Hanover’s Nathan Subrahmanian, right, during the NHIAA teams’ season opener Saturday at Merriman-Branch Field. The host Marauders won, 2-1.