By Tris Wykes

Copyright 2021 Octopus Athletics

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Hartford High girls soccer coach Jeff Acker stretched his arms wide around noon Saturday to encompass his team’s field at the Maxfield athletic complex. The glowing green pitch is surrounded by trees, the sky was bright blue and the weather sunny but not too hot.

“It’s hard to imagine there are many nicer settings for soccer in Vermont,” the 16th-year coach said. 

Hartford High’s Sarah Howe unleashes a corner kick. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

The only improvement would have been a Hurricanes victory, but the hosts surrendered a goal during the fourth minute of their season opener and fell, 1-0, to U32. The Raiders, defending Division II champions, snapped a 29-year title drought last fall with the first crown in program history.

Hartford had only a few prime scoring chances, including one shot that caromed off the right post, but Acker wasn’t unhappy with his team’s play. 

“We want to get more chances but finishing is the hardest part of soccer,” he said. “It’s definitely something we’ll work on but we defended well and I felt we controlled the territorial play.”

The Hurricanes return 12 seniors from last year’s 5-6 team that exited the playoffs in the quarterfinals. One of them, captain and attacking midfielder Nora Knudsen, was the most noticeable player for her squad, consistently hustling onto loose balls and to challenge opponents in possession. While other Hurricanes seemed to sag at various junctures, diminutive No. 7 never slowed down.

“She has a great motor and recognizes where the ball’s going to be and how to get there,” Acker said. “She’s really good technically, so when she gets it, she can possess it. She’s a four-year starter and I bet she hasn’t been on the bench for 20 minutes in that time.

“She’s put the physical piece into play this year, where now she’s strong enough, fast enough and tough enough to be an impact player.”

Hartford High’s Nora Knudsen (7) navigates through midfield. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Hartford switched from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 on Tuesday, seeking to more often play the ball laterally for better possession. Acker pointed out that the loss of speedster Eleanor Hinckley to graduation meant his team wasn’t likely to win as many of the through balls created by the former set, so he’s aiming to get more numbers forward.

“We could always be sharper,” Acker said. “I don’t have a lot of year-round players, so most of them hadn’t touched a soccer ball since last November until three weeks ago. 

“We have to learn that if someone plays a ball into space, the others have to expect that and react accordingly. We have to learn to play together and that takes time. Even when you scrimmage, you don’t replicate games.”

U32’s Clara Wilson broke in from the left wing and beat Hartford goalkeeper Erin Thompson with a quick shot inside the far post and off the dribble. 

“I think we were ready but what I was impressed with was that after they scored, we elevated our play,” Acker said. “We just said, ‘Ok, we’re going to play now’. I think a younger team, you give up that first goal of the year so early and there are jitters and you might fall apart.”

Notes: Hartford visits Springfield on Wednesday… Acker was assisted for the day by his daughter, Emily, a former Hanover High soccer and ice hockey player who’s out of graduate school and about to start employed life in Boston in the health-care management field… Sarah Howe, a senior who excelled at defender last season, has been moved to striker for the Hurricanes… U32’s roster includes players with the unusual first names of Tovah, Kearsten, Maia, Sun, Penelope and Jin.

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Hartford High’s Jenna Jasmin (3) is flanked by teammate Maddie Withington and U32’s Norah Wilcox. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.