By Tris Wykes
Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021
LEBANON – Twilight descended Friday afternoon as Lebanon High soccer standout Ryan Oliveira prepared for a penalty kick against visiting Bow. The familiar foes had produced a 1-1 tie through 100 minutes and now the midfielder could end the NHIAA Division II quarterfinal playoff match in front of about 200 frenzied fans.
Holding his stance for roughly 10 seconds in the dwindling sunlight, Oliveira finally received the referee’s ready whistle and punched a successful shot high and to the left of diving Falcons goalkeeper Kyle Martin.
Overcome by emotion, the senior shooter dropped to his knees, the first to reach him being junior goalkeeper Easton Wykes, who stopped three of Bow’s four penalty-shot attempts.
The unlikely pair, Olivera long a star and Wykes recently promoted from student manager, was soon buried beneath converging waves of teammates and classmates. The groups formed a jumping, screaming mass atop and around the shootout heroes for more than a minute.
“You always want it to be decided in the run of play, but it’s how the world decides our game,” said 28th-year Raiders coach Rob Johnstone, whose teams have advanced to the state finals five times without a victory. “It would have been really sad and hard for the guys if we’d lost on them today, but it might happen Tuesday.”
That’s when third-seeded Lebanon (15-2), which received a first-round bye, faces 10th-seeded Kingswood in a 4 p.m. semifinal clash at Nashua’s Stellos Stadium. The finals are scheduled for three days later at 5:30 p.m. in the same location.
The Knights (9-8-1), who upset second-seeded Milford in penalty kicks Friday, dropped six of their first seven games but have lost only twice during their last 11 contests. Milford (15-1-1) beat visiting Lebanon, 2-1, last month.
Bow, which lost in last season’s division championship, was dominated, 4-0, at Lebanon during the teams’ regular-season finale a week ago. Falcons coach George Pinkham cleared his bench midway through that game’s second half, but also prepared his players well for the rematch.
The visitors surrendered Friday’s first 19 corner kicks. They trailed, 22-2, in that statistic by overtime’s end, but were utterly committed to defense.
Ironically, the Falcons (10-7-1), who surrendered two corner-kick goals to Lebanon last week, knocked home their Friday tally on a restart. Sweeper Nate Dolder, the game’s best player and booting with the setting sun at his back, pounded a beautiful, 40-yard direct kick that sailed over Wykes’ head and under the crossbar.
“As soon as Nate hit it, you could see the poor goalkeeper trying to find it in the sun,” Pinkham said. “I don’t think he ever saw it.”
That 21st-minute strike was answered four minutes before intermission when Nick Brill volleyed in a bouncing ball from the center of the penalty area and following a Lebanon throw-in. From there, the Raiders dominated possession but Bow’s defense, driven by the relentless Dolder, a 2020 all-state player, held the fort.
“That kid gave us fits last year,” said Johnstone, whose team lost a 2020 quarterfinal match at Bow. “They play him 15 yards behind everybody else. He’s tenacious and fast and he cuts off balls and plays with both feet. He’s always sending balls forward and organzing in the back.”
Martin made two stunning saves, one a leap to tip a second-half shot over the crossbar and the other a dive to knock down a laser from Latvian exchange student Krists Putans late in regulation time. The Falcons had clearly decided the 6-foot-3 sniper wasn’t going to have an easy time of it, shadowing him and knocking him about.
“I don’t know how many times I heard them shouting his number,” Johnstone said. “When I’d sub him in, they’d be shouting that he was back on the field. (The grass) is a little choppy and he had two guys on him most of the time. I think he had some good ideas and moments despite clearly being the focus of their attention.”
Lebanon received Brill’s usual hustle, Oliveira’s superior passing and dribbling and Daniel Mladek’s staunch ability to keep foes on their side of the field. Often unheralded, but crucial Friday was the Raiders defense of center backs Gamache and Francis Calandrella and flankers Griffin Auch (a striker until August) and the rotating pair of Seth Carl and John Bieszczad.
The shootout appeared an unfair fight, for Martin is the prototypical goalkeeper, tall and athletic, while Wykes is undersized and was toting water bottles and drill cones at season’s start. A chore of particular irritation was hunting for errant balls in the tall grass, woods and wetlands that adjoin his school’s athletic fields.
Johnstone watched Wykes play a serviceable goalkeeper on the JV team for two years and went with him in the varsity crease after senior starter Colbie Delisle broke his ankle at Pembroke on Sept. 21.
However, the coach also saw Wykes struggle badly against penalty kicks during Thursday’s practice. When Friday’s shootout arrived, Johnstone called his team together and gently suggested that Putans, tall, rangy and agile, might be the better choice in goal.
Wykes unexpectedly and loudly declared he was staying in net, his forceful announcement prompting whoops and applause from his teammates. The Raiders then lined up side-by-side along the center stripe, arms draped over each other’s shoulders. The Falcons assumed the same position.
Wykes saved the first shot and Lebanon’s Mladek then scored, putting the hosts ahead. Bow scored on its second shot, but so did Lebanon’s Gamache. Wykes dove to make another save, but teammate Otto Bourne was denied by Martin.
Wykes made his final stop and spiked the ball at the penalty stripe, sending the nearby Lebanon student section into hysterics. Oliveira stepped to the 12-yard stripe for his closing moment.
“It’s quite a story for Easton, because he’s so hard on himself and he’s hard to read because he looks angry all the time,” Johnstone said. “He looked miserable yesterday, and you don’t want to put people in game situations they don’t want to be in.
“But he said he wanted to do the penalty kicks and the team went nuts. It makes me tear up just talking about it.”
Said Pinkham: “I didn’t really want to go to penalty kicks. I’d much rather have the game end in overtime. The kids who miss… they’ll remember it the rest of their life.”
Safe to say, all participants and most attendees are likely to long recall Friday’s game.
Notes: Wykes huddled with Delisle before the shootout to receive tips. He’s also benefitted from sessions this season with German goalkeeping coach Philipp Frecke, a managing process engineer at Hypertherm, who’s in his first Raiders campaign… Johnstone said playing four teams ranked seventh or better in the division standings during his squad’s previous five games was excellent preparation for playoff soccer… The Falcons arrived with their hair bleached bright blond, a hirsute repeat of last year’s postseason run… Lebanon was 7-3-1 last season, playing mostly local foes because of Covid-19 restrictions. Johnstone booked 15 different Division II opponents for this fall, plus NHIAA Division I scrimmage foes Hanover and Concord, both of which the Raiders defeated… Kingswood has posted seven shutouts this season… Johnstone’s finals trips include two that were replayed during the days when New Hampshire did not use penalty kicks to decide playoff games.
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