By Tris Wykes
LEBANON – Lebanon High boys soccer coach Rob Johnstone was clearly downcast during his team’s 4-1 victory over visiting Mascoma on Monday. It didn’t have much to do with his Raiders needing to break a halftime tie, either.
No, Johnstone was still digesting the day’s earlier news: that despite going 4-2 this season with their losses to defending NHIAA Division I champion Hanover, the Division II Raiders will likely not host a game in the upcoming state playoffs.
Grouped in Region 3 with John Stark, Bow and Stevens, Lebanon was assigned to play its postseason opener Oct. 28 at the first of those schools. The second-seeded Generals are 5-0-3, but their schedule doesn’t include an opponent of Hanover’s caliber.
Should the third-seeded Raiders win their opener, they’ll face the winner of top-seeded Bow (4-0-3) and fourth-seeded Stevens (2-5) on Oct. 31. The NHIAA described its playoff pairings as “randomly generated.”
“We have this beautiful field and we’ve earned the right to play on it again,” Johnstone said. “But I’m trying to focus instead on the fact that we get to keep playing at all during a pandemic.”
Mascoma (5-3) is second-seeded in Division III’s Region 3 and on Oct. 28 will host the winner of third-seeded Kearsarge vs. sixth-seeded Newfound.
Should the Royals win, they would possibly face top-seeded Winnisquam three days later in the region final. The Bears would need to get past the Oct. 26 victor of a game between fourth-seeded Hopkinton and fifth-seeded Hillsboro-Deering.
Johnstone’s mood would have darkened considerably had his team not rallied after intermission Monday. Lebanon opened the scoring during the third minute, Emmanuel Bello running onto a Griffin Gamache through ball and slotting it past charging goalkeeper Connor Thompson.
The Raiders put together a flurry of chances before and after that tally and it felt like the game might be decided early. The Royals, however, weathered the storm and began to steadily tilt the field back towards a neutral setting.
A Lebanon turnover near midfield during the 18th minute led to the ball bouncing back towards home goalkeeper Colbie Delisle, with Gamache and Mascoma striker Ben Seiler in hot pursuit. The three came together and the defenders lost, Seiler popping free to tie the game, 1-1.
Thompson, who was outstanding all afternoon, stopped a Tyler St. Martin penalty kick before intermission. Mascoma, playing with only three substitutes so that its JV squad would have enough players to compete on a nearby field, began to wear down after the break.
“I was hopeful at the half, but there were just too many offensive opportunities for (Lebanon),” said Mascoma coach Keli Green, whose team hosts Lebanon for a Wednesday rematch. “They kept getting the ball in the box and a couple times it bounced badly for us and beat my guys.”
Ryan Oliveira gave Lebanon a 2-1 lead 11 minutes into the second half. The central midfielder dribbled free in the penalty area’s right half before using his left foot to send a shot inside the left post from about 12 yards.
The junior struck again with 14 minutes remaining. This time, he put on a footwork clinic that lasted four or five seconds, dribbling through a clearly-exhausted defense and gently tapping the ball past Thompson from close range. St. Martin closed the scoring off an Alex Felix assist with six minutes to play.
Johnstone compared Oliveira to Logan Falzarano, who played the same position as a senior last season and who’s slated to suit up for NCAA Division III program Johns Hopkins once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. The coach said the younger player watched Falzarano’s effort, creativeness and take-charge attitude and is performing an excellent imitation.
“Ryan’s a legitimately outstanding two-way player,” Johnstone said. “You hear his voice constantly, not just demanding the ball, but instructing others. He can come out of a tackle and he’s immediately going full speed.
“You want your most talented guys to set the work-rate bar and Ryan’s extremely demanding of himself. That’s contagious.”
Hard work has also helped lift Mascoma’s program in recent years. The Royals have progressed from a group that sometimes appeared only out for a vigorous jog, to a team featuring better athletes with winning expectations.
“I think today’s game was better played than the score reflected,” Green said. “It was played at a different skill level than we usually play, but I’m not at all disappointed. It showed us how we have to work on our formation and coming to the ball.”
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