By Tris Wykes
Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021
Look… if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted, in one moment
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?
– “Lose Yourself”, Eminem (2002)
NASHUA – Lebanon High senior Krists Putans munched on an oatmeal cookie Friday night while wandering through a crowd of ecstatic soccer teammates, classmates, parents and fans just outside Stellos Stadium’s field fence.
The Latvian exchange student’s placid demeanor was in marked contrast to the emotional swings he’d endured just 20 minutes before, capped by sinking the deciding penalty kick to lift the Raiders to a 4-3 shootout decision and a 1-0 victory in the NHIAA Division II title game.
Lebanon (17-2) handed Oyster River (17-1-1) its first loss of the season while earning its first crown in 30 years and 28th-year coach Rob Johnstone his first championship in six visits to the finals.
“I wasn’t nervous at all, because I’d been practicing a lot of penalty shots,” Putans said. “When I scored I thought I was dreaming. It was a fantastic feeling for me.”
Johnstone has twice dealt with Raiders teams losing in next-day replays during times before penalty kicks were used to decide title games. He’s happy not only for the current squad, but for those that came before and came up short.
“I’m just so proud of our program getting here six times,” the coach said. “I had (former players) fly back from (Washington) D.C. and Philadelphia to watch. Wade Fleming, one of my old goalies, was sobbing over there.
“We’ve had so many phenomenal people come through who’ve left this venue or (Southern New Hampshire University) with a tear in their eye.”
The game was the futbol equivalent of a 15-round boxing match, the top-seeded Wildcats and third-seeded Raiders trading possession, field-position runs and scoring chances at a furious pace. That the contest was scoreless through 100 minutes was a tribute to both teams’ all-out defensive efforts, backed by Oyster River goalkeeper Kenton Quaglieri and his Lebanon counterpart, Easton Wykes.
“It was really stressful,” said Lebanon forward Nick Brill, noting that his team focused on pulling upfield as soon as possible, so as not to allow Oyster River onside chances on passes over the top. “They had some really good possessions and I was scared every time they got the ball that the season would be over.”
Johnstone also credited right back Griffin Auch, a senior who played striker his first two varsity seasons before buying into a positional switch in August. Center midfielder Ryan Oliveira’s gritty play and hustle allowed Lebanon to play on the balls of its collective feet and not on its heels.
The Raiders’ best field player, however, might have been defensive midfielder Daniel Mladek. A tall, physical senior of German heritage who’s played in his father’s native land during time spent abroad, the big blond was his team’s possession anchor all season.
“If you’re not disciplined, (Oyster River will) shred you,” Johnstone said. “Daniel had to stay in that hole in front of our back four and play with discipline. He orchestrated a lot of things, because he was there to intercept passes and make good decisions with the ball afterwards.”
Penalty kicks arrifed amid a sense of resignation on a night where temperatures dipped into the high 20s. The cliche that it’s a shame either team had to lose in such fashion was truly accurate in this case.
Oyster River’s Nik O’Hern led off, but his low blast was denied by a sprawling Wykes, who stopped three of four PKs during Lebanon’s quarterfinal defeat of Bow. Mladek put his team up, 1-0, but the Bobcats’ Hunter Perry followed with his own goal.
The Raiders’ Otto Bourne, his team’s only freshman, fired a shot in off the hands of a diving Quaglieri. Wykes faced Oyster River’s Brady Luczek next, diving one way and watching in relief as a high shot cracked off the far post.
The elation didn’t last long, because Lebanon’s Griffin Gamache shot wide right. But so did the Bobcats’ Andres Alcocer. The Raiders’ Oliveira then scored to bring on the final round, his team up, 3-2.
Jack Vittorioso converted his team’s fifth shot. That brought Putans to the line with a chance to win a state championship in a state he’d never heard of while growing up in Europe.
Quaglieri dove towards the left post but guessed wrong. Putans’ shot dented the netting inside the right pole and his teammates raced off the center line to envelop him in hugs, head smacks and screams. A Lebanon rooting section plumped by a busload of student supporters went bonkers amid a crowd of more than 3,500.
Johnstone sat alone on the end of his team’s bench during the shootout, as he did during his team’s PKs in the quarterfinals. The Windsor High English teacher was elated for Putans, who had a prime scoring chance late in the second, 10-minute overtime, but slipped as he shot and was denied by Quaglieri.
“He was 8 yards from goal and squared up,” Johnstone said. “He came off pretty devastated, but Ryan Oliveira went to him and told him, ‘Hey, hey, the moment’s now’. So for him to bury it on that fifth shot was special, because he’d been so hard on himself.”
Speaking of emotions, coach, what were yours as the shootout progressed?
“I’m not going to lie: what was going through my mind was ‘Is it going to be another time here with heartbreak?’” said Johnstone, whose teams have never scored a field-play goal in championship competition. “We’ve lost in the finals, 1-0, four times. Two of those were in double overtimes, and twice we’ve gone to penalties.”
That Lebanon’s first title in three decades came with Wykes in goal would have seemed preposterous at season’s start. The junior was the JV starter last season but didn’t project as a 2021 varsity player, so he became its manager and a practice goalkeeper behind senior starter Colbie Delisle.
However, Delisle broke a leg bone and his ankle Sept. 21 at Pembroke. Should Johnstone now go with the scrawny kid who’d been toting water bottles and the medical kit?
Johnstone held goalkeeping tryouts one day, but elected to run with Wykes. The Raiders retooled a bit, knowing their already-strong defense had to focus even more on limiting shots, but this is a team that outscored foes, 83-11, entering the title game. Number 1 had to do the basics, not be a world beater.
“You truly can’t script this,” Johnstone said. “Saving that first penalty kick (Friday) was a huge emotional lift for our guys and for him, but he also stopped a breakaway two minutes into the game.
“That’s not ‘Let’s put the manager into the game and hope we can hide him.’ There were some truly critical moments where he made saves.”
Notes: The Raiders were rewarded with Lebanon’s traditional salute to its state title teams, a police-car escort in from Interstate 89 North and a trip around Colburn Park before heading to the high school… Johnstone sent the game’s live-video link to his wife, Andrea, a Hanover High guidance counselor who’s on sabbatical working in the Middle East. He wasn’t sure if she’d watch it however – kickoff was at 2:30 a.m. her time… Some members of the Raiders student section wore soccer players’ maroon home jerseys during the game. Hulking football lineman Cam Davio squeezed into one of Wykes’ yellow tops, creating something of a stuffed sausage effect… Lebanon’s last title-game victory came in 1991 when it defeated arch-rival Hanover. The Raiders made unsuccessful finals appearances in 2019, 2016, 2011, 2006 and 1999.
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