By Tris Wykes

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Sharon Academy boys soccer players wear warmup jackets with the word “RISE” printed across the back. The Phoenix did just that Saturday evening, battling host Hartford to a 1-1 tie during 100 minutes of end-to-end play.

The Vermont Division IV visitors staged their best game of the season, said TSA coach and athletic director Blake Fabrikant. His 6-3-1 team knew it was taking a step up in challenging the Division II Hurricanes. 

Sharon Academy’s Ian Robertson and Hartford goalkeeper Shane Miller play a cross.

“It was incredibly even game across the board,” Fabrikant said. “Our defense was compact and communicated well. We moved the ball and if we play like that, we’re going to beat anyone we play in Division IV.

Hartford has won only three games, but has lost thrice in overtime and experienced five one-goal decisions. The Hurricanes (3-5-1) could be a tough out in the upcoming playoffs, when coach Kevin Guilbault expects them to receive the No. 10 slot and play at No. 7 U32 (4-4) in the first round.

“All our games have pretty much been close and that shows you the depth and soccer ability in this state,” the coach said. “It’s what we’re used to at this point. I give (Sharon) all the credit in the world. They play with good skill and under control. They’re organized and made it hard on us.”

The Phoenix, 0-2-2 in their last four games, opened the scoring during the 17th minute. Hartford goalkeeper Shane Miller dropped a long ball off a free kick and Riley Eastman was there to boot it home.

Hartford High’s Nolan McMahon heads the ball while fending off a kick from Sharon’s Daniel Henderson.

Hartford forged a tie with 8 minutes, 42 seconds remaining in second half. Tarin Prior ran deep into the right corner and somehow got off a high, floating ball that dropped over leaping goalkeeper Ben Rodis and inside the far post. Rodis hung on the crossbar for a moment before falling to earth and ducking his head in disbelief. 

“I turned to my assistants and asked if there was a hole in the top of the net,” Guilbault said. “I don’t know how that went in and I don’t think anyone here knows. It just barely went off the bar and down.”

Prior was a threat much of the night, despite his team being outshot, 12-9.

“He’s aggressive and he’s got that goal-scorer’s mentality where he’s going to take shots most kids wouldn’t dare,” Guilbault said. “I don’t know if he was trying to shoot that one or just cross it, but he got enough backspin that it went in.”

It appeared Sharon’s Eastman was going to fire in the winning goal late in the second, 10-minute overtime. Daniel Henderson pursued a ball into the left corner before beating his defender with a cross into the center of the penalty area. There wasn’t a blue jersey remotely near Eastman and he cranked off a blazing shot, but Miller somehow stopped the missile with leap to his left.

Sharon Academy’s Riley Eastman unleashes a late shot that was stopped by Hartford goalkeeper Shane Miller.

“I thought it was going in,” Fabrikant said. Miller “got fully horizontal. He’s phenomenal.”

Said Guilbault: “He saved the game for us. We were pressing up and trying to get a goal and lost track of the defensive portion of the field. I know Shane felt poorly about the goal he let in, but he certainly made up for it at the most important part of the game.”

Hartford midfielder Nolan McMahon was another standout. The tiny sophomore seems to be knocked flying once or twice a game, but perseveres with quick touches and distribution while being willing to go shoulder-to-shoulder with larger foes.

“He has a good first touch and understands the game well,” Guilbault said. “He knows to use give-and-go passes to get himself open. Other guys’ first instinct may be to take a defender on.” 

Fabrikant, in his second campaign leading the Phoenix, has previously coached Sharon’s girls soccer and boys basketball teams to impressive seasons. He’s hopeful Friday’s showing portends more of the same for a squad that’s likely to host a first-round playoff game.

“We matched Hartford’s level of effort and physicality,” Fabrikant said. “We don’t see that level of athleticism very often, so I was extremely proud of our guys. It gives us confidence and it’s an amazing way to end the (regular) season.”

Notes: TSA defender Simon North played with a cast on his left hand and the cast covered in bubble wrap… Miller is the son of former Dartmouth College strength and conditioning coach Bob Miller, who now works for the United States Postal Service and trains Hurricanes athletes in his spare time… Hartford took five of the game’s seven corner kicks… Hank Tenney, at one time the Hanover Recreation Department’s director and a coach of various sports at various Upper Valley high schools, was one of the game’s linesmen.

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Hartford High’s Ian O’Brien (21) and Sharon’s Riley Eastman clash at midfield.