By Tris Wykes
Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021
HANOVER – Lebanon High boys soccer coach Rob Johnstone had an immediate and adamant message for his players following their 2-0 preseason scrimmage victory at arch-rival Hanover on Tuesday night. They were to create no social media posts or images of a gloating nature.
“Don’t take the bait and don’t cast the bait,” ordered Johnstone, whose side received breakaway goals from Krists Putans and Nick Brill. “React with class.”
To an outsider, the warning might have seemed overkill. Who cares about a futbol friendly’s result? But this rivalry calls to mind the sort of backyard struggles that siblings bring up decades later. Sometimes the most bitter battles are the ones with nothing tangible at stake.
“This heated rivalry has evolved into a mutually beneficial rivalry, but you still want to win,” said Johnstone, who last week coached at a Marauders soccer camp that nine of his players attended. “You want to find out if you can solve different puzzles, like the way we had to chase the ball most of the time tonight.”
Hanover, which reached the NHIAA Division I semifinals last year, played roughly 20 games this summer while Lebanon played none. Johnstone instead choosing to hold skills-heavy training sessions.
The Marauders clearly had the run of play Tuesday and owned a 17-5 shot advantage, but the Raiders were equal to the task defensively, backed by Colbie Delisle’s six saves and the discipline to adhere to their coach’s conservative game plan.
“We were going to have to work our rear ends off,” said Johnstone, whose program reached the Division II finals two years ago and the quarterfinals last autumn. “Our line of engagement was the the top of the midfield circle. How many high school kids are told to let the other team come out of its own end? It’s counterintuitive.
“If we extended into the Hanover third of the field, it was going to be exhausting against a technical and dangerous team. Instead, we compressed a 120-yard long field to 55 yards and it was a lot easier to keep them out.”
Lebanon began preseason practice Monday without a proven striker but might have found one in Latvian exchange student Putans, a 6-foot-4 senior with a haircut that features shaved sides beneath a blonde mop. The lanky forward ran onto a through ball midway through the first half and cooly parked it into the upper left corner past goalkeeper Ty Nolon.
“I’ve known him for 60 hours,” Johnstone said with a chuckle. “He’s clearly had good coaching and knows how to play. That was a great, clinical finish. You saw the prep touch and the shot and it was evident he knew exactly where he was shooting. He certainly didn’t learn that from me.”
One player Johnstone has regularly tutored is Delisle, who began high school as a field player before spending his sophomore year as the JV goaltender and last season splitting time on the varsity. The backstop’s body has filled out, but he’s lost none of his agility and he made a stunning save on a shot labeled for the upper, left corner with seven minutes remaining. Brill scored five minutes later.
“Ideally, your goalie doesn’t have to make great saves, but he had a couple of highlight ones,” Johnstone said of Delisle, who’s also a long-stick defender in lacrosse. “He did a great job on coming out to cut off crosses, which is so important.”
Hanover coach Rob Grabill, like Johnstone, deployed a wide variety of varsity starters and prospects, removing several of his most effective competitors down the stretch, when they might have changed the score.
The night was a celebration of local soccer, the 19th-year bench boss said, grateful for the chance to see his candidates try out under pressure. He touted outside midfielder Will Guerin, central midfielder Ryder Hayes and backline mainstays Connor Hamlin and Palmer Okai.
“This was the kids in the neighborhood getting together and having a kick-about,” said Grabill, whose team is yet again expected to challenge for the Division I title. “Guys played really hard, but they picked each other up if someone went down.”
For now, bragging rights belong to the Raiders, even if they were instructed not to brag.
“These are the best soccer players in our area,” Johnstone said. “ It means more to win this matchup than one against some other school.”
Notes: Hanover midfielder Jack Ross and Lebanon counterpart Otto Bourne sat out because of injury… Pete DePalo, one of the scrimmage’s referees, will be inducted into the NHIAA Hall of Fame on Nov. 14. The onetime Lebanon High baseball player has umpired baseball and softball for 43 years, refereed basketball for 35 years and officiated soccer for 34 years. He turns 69 later this month… Grabill, who’s wearing a white beard these days, referred to it as his “Ernest Hemingway look”. The legendary author was known to enjoy football, baseball, hunting, fishing and various types of racing, but is not widely described as a soccer enthusiast… Hanover athletic director Megan Sobel had no news on the progress of her school’s move away from its longtime Marauders nickname. “The students are doing this at their pace,” she said. The football team will not wear the pirate’s head logo on its helmets this season, as it has in the past… The Marauders volleyball team has also begun its preseason and is doing so while wearing masks in the gym.
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