By Tris Wykes
CLAREMONT – Monday Night Futbol was the best show in town when the Lebanon High and Stevens boys soccer teams clashed at Monadnock Park. The action was well-played, dramatic and came with an unexpected ending that lifted the visitors to a 1-0 triumph.
The host Cardinals (1-1) were under siege for much of the NHIAA game. Backed by goalkeeper Cooper Moote’s astounding performance, however, the hosts hung on through 8 minutes and 42 seconds of overtime. The junior was sensational in making 12 saves, but the last ball he touched decided the contest.
The final sequence began when Lebanon’s Griffin Auch carried the ball down the right wing, then cut back and sent a left-footed cross into the center of the Stevens penalty area.
The Raiders (1-1) had bombarded the box for the past several minutes. It seemed inevitable that they would score, but the Cardinals had repelled them for so long that the far-fetched prospect of their survival grew more realistic by the minute.
Instead, Auch’s offering caromed off a body and slid through to teammate Daniel Mladek, who ran in from the left wing. Mladek, who played almost the entire game, pounded a shot that deflected off defender Austin Jones and wobbled weirdly along the ground towards the right post.
Moote, crouched low with his hands outstretched, reached for the ball only to have it spin off his hands and across the goal line. It was an unjust fate for the clear man of the match.
“Everyone was tired and frustrated and mad because all our shots were near misses,” Mladek said. “But we got one in the end, so that’s all that matters.”
Lebanon, which lost late Saturday at Hanover in its season opener, attempted 31 shots and had numerous others blocked. During the first half, however, most of those shots sailed high or wide. Only after halftime did the Raiders dial in, and Moote was always there.
“They were so organized,” 27th-year Lebanon coach Rob Johnstone said of the Cardinals’ defense, which often involved 10 players within 25 yards of the net. “We kept winning balls in their end but there were always bodies in the way.”
What made the game so compelling, despite Lebanon owning 9/10 of the possession time, was how Stevens parried the attack with defensive guts and perseverance. Despite having only three substitutes, the Cardinals weren’t overwhelmed and staggering about. They stared down a heavily-armed foe with superior depth and nearly scored on their few offensive chances.
“We knew we weren’t going to have the ball a lot, so I told our guys to get comfortable with that,” said ninth-year Stevens coach Jason Stone, who previously coached under Johnstone. “We had to learn to defend the last few days. I’ll take what we did tonight any time.
“Just going to overtime was almost a win for us. I’m not usually happy with a loss, but we’re headed in the right direction.”
Stone was content to pack his defenders in and allow Lebanon to take outside shots, knowing he had Moote on the line. Johnstone knows goalkeeper well, having coached him in the Granite State Games. The Raiders boss wasn’t surprised with what transpired, but that didn’t lessen his appreciation.
“I think you saw Cooper’s full package tonight,” Johnstone said. “He can really knock the ball on restarts and he made two or three brave saves where he took balls off our guys’ feet. Several times, a guy comes through a seam and shoots and he makes an amazing reaction save.”
Two of Moote’s notable stops were on all-out dives to his left, plays that called to mind baseball’s best third basemen. The capper, however, came with 14 minutes remaining in the second half, when Moote seemed to levitate, flying up and out and knocking away a Tyler St. Martin shot labeled for the upper, right corner.
“WHAT?!” screamed a stunned player on Lebanon’s bench. The crowd oohed and hooted in recognition.
“He was super good and made all kinds of crazy saves,” Mladek said of the opposing netminder. “I was flabbergasted.”
Johnstone touted center midfielder Ryan Oliveira, who absorbed a beating while dribbling through traffic. Emmanuel Bello was also a repeated threat to score and holding midfielder St. Martin played well, as did outside midfielder Jake Kriplin. Colby Delisle made four saves for Lebanon, which took seven corner kicks while allowing none during the second half and overtime.
“I would rank that with any of our performances in the last few years” Johnstone said. “We played quickly and with purpose to try and break them down, but we still couldn’t stretch their defense out.”
Those who missed the contest get a second chance Wednesday, when the teams stage a rematch in Lebanon, where a slightly wider field might favor the Raiders even more. The Cardinals play the second game in a four-game stretch that concludes with an upcoming home-and-home set against defending Division I champion Hanover.
“We should be pretty good when we come out of the back end of that,” said Stone, who believes being the underdog so often will harden his troops for the playoffs. “We’ll just stay tight and composed in the back and hope for some counter-attacks or to knock one over the top.”
With the might Moote in goal, anything is possible.
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