By Tris Wykes

HANOVER – It was a beautiful night for The Beautiful Game at Merriman-Branch Field on Thursday and the Hanover High and Lebanon boys soccer teams upheld their end of the bargain. 

For weeks, prep players and coaches have noted how lucky they are to be playing sports despite the Covid-19 pandemic. The NHIAA clash between the undefeated Marauders and Raiders on a 65-degree evening under the lights might have been that sentiment’s best advertisement yet. 

Lebanon High’s Johnny Bieszczad, left, and Will Guerin collide in the Raiders’ end.

Inserted late to give the hosts an energy burst, midfielder Zane Schiffman delivered in spades. 

The junior outraced two defenders into the right corner before sending a horizontal pass behind the Lebanon defense. Classmate Murphy Hunt knocked the ball into the open left side for his first varsity goal. 

Three minutes later, Schiffman chipped a through ball from the right wing to Will Guerin, running up the field’s center. The freshman’s 25-yard shot beat charging goalkeeper Ryan Tanski and effectively ended the game, the Raiders subsequently sending multiple reserves into the action.

“We’ve practiced once in the last nine days, but so what?” said Lebanon coach Rob Johnstone, whose team’s workouts were reduced by saturated, natural grass fields and five days’ forced inactivity because of Covid issues. “We’re just happy to be out here. Except for losing.”

The Raiders (4-2) were also down a starting fullback and a key midfield reserve because of injury and illness, but they mostly matched the defending Division I champions stride for stride. Hanover won the teams’ earlier matchup, 2-1, at the same site but Johnstone felt his squad, which hadn’t played in 10 days, was decidedly improved from that season opener.

“We had (possession) twice as much as when we played them before,” said the 27th-year bench boss, whose Division II team was outshot, 17-6. “So much of the back and middle thirds of the field were really good for us, but when space gets compressed in the offensive end, the pressure goes up.

“We didn’t have a lot of clear-cut chances, but we were one pass away.”

Lebanon High’s Ben Katz, left, dribbles under the eye of Hanover’s Dylan Kotlowitz.

Lebanon’s starting rearguard of outside backs Alex Felix and Johnny Bieszczad and central defenders Preston Hewett and Griffin Gamache was stellar almost all night, despite few substitutions. Hewett, who overcame a dislocated kneecap suffered during summer baseball to return for soccer season, played the entire contest. 

When the first scoring play began, Hewett did as coached, sliding over to take Schiffman in the corner. Felix was supposed to then cut inside and fill Hewett’s gap, but instead headed toward the flag as well. Hanover now had a numbers advantage in the box and when Schiffman executed one of his trademark, lightning cuts with the ball, the Raiders were sunk.

“Alex overcommitted and tried to make up for it, but that’s on me,” Hewett said. “I should have seen that coming and dropped back into the middle. We got tired coming off a week’s break, but we need to deep deeper.”

Lebanon used frequent substitutions but wasn’t quite able to match Hanover’s talent and execution. The Marauders got expected, standout performances from outside fullbacks Dylan Kotlowitz and Evan Nichols and midfielder Eric Ringer. Guerin is a water bug up top and Hanover didn’t even have the services of star striker Henry Aspinwall, who’s out hurt. 

“It was everything we hoped for,” said 15th-year Hanover coach Rob Grabill, who shifted formations to get more numbers forward during the second half. “We’ve got quality off the bench. Zane works incredibly hard and he’s wicked smart and he made something out of nothing down in the corner.”

Hanover High’s Eric Ringer (8) is flanked by Lebanon’s Alex Felix (9) and Tyler St. Martin.

Hanover (7-0) finishes the season with two games against Division I Keene and Lebanon clashes twice with Mascoma and once each with Kearsarge and Fall Mountain. After that comes what’s assumed to be regional playoffs by division, with the winners advancing to the state semifinals. 

Grabill, however, pointed out that the Dresden School District prohibits sports team travel to certain parts of the state, which could end any postseason advance.

“We might be in a group of death with Concord, Manchester Central and Bedford and get randomly seeded,” Grabill said. “But we can’t go to Hillsborough County and that would be game over. That’s a likely prospect.”

If so, at least the Marauders got a taste of playoff-caliber soccer Thursday.

Notes: Hanover won the schools’ boys JV game, 5-3, with the Raiders missing three players under Covid-19 quarantine… Grabill has long kept the scorebook during games, something virtually every other varsity coach delegates to underlings. “I have (Attention Deficit Disorder) and this keeps me calm,” he said. In addition to statistics, Grabill jots notes, including one Thursday on a play during which Guerin wound up for a shot but completely missed the ball and toppled over… Tanski and Hanover counterpart Ty Nolan each made five saves.

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Lebanon High goalkeeper Ryan Tanski punts.