By Tris Wykes
Copyright 2021 Octopus Athletics
LEBANON – Lebanon High boys soccer coach Rob Johnstone was asked Saturday where this season’s team might rank among the 28 Raiders teams he’s guided thus far.
“It’s a cliche answer, but 28th,” he said. “We haven’t done anything yet.”
Oh, but it might. Lebanon returns eight players who started for all or some of last season’s games, when it reached the NHIAA Division II quarterfinals a year after participating in the championship. Throw in a European import and nine newcomers who helped the program’s JV team win all but four games the past two campaigns, and the Raiders look strong on paper.
“I’m enjoying every practice,” said senior midfielder Ryan Oliveira. “We’re not only good, but we’re good friends and we hang out together.”
Lebanon knocked off arch-rival and Division I semifinalist Hanover in its first preseason scrimmage before easily dispatching another DI foe, Concord, in its second friendly. The Raiders will face a tough schedule that includes Oyster River, Con-Val, Coe-Brown and Bow but this is a team without obvious weakness.
Lebanon’s veteran presence includes with strapping senior goalkeeper Colbie Delisle. “Chud” as he was nicknamed years ago by his grandmother, became a backstop only two seasons ago, but split time with the varsity last autumn.
Delisle, also a starting lacrosse defender, displays standout reflexes and combines a relaxed and confident demeanor with a tight end’s frame. Fitness is not Delisle’s strong point, but Johnstone often has him in drills as a field player to sharpen his ball skills and work on his conditioning.
Senior Griffin Gamache returns at central defender and is likely to be paired with either Francis Caladrella, the baseball team’s shortstop, or Duncan Green, both juniors. Calandrella is more substantial but Green is more agile, while Gamache is fast, good in the air and much improved on the dribble.
Griffin Auch is an offensive standout for the hockey and lacrosse teams and was previously a soccer forward, but Johnstone has moved him to right outside fullback. The coach cites Auch’s athleticism, size and physical edge as reasons for the switch and the senior kept Hanover jitterbug wing Will Guerin mostly under wraps in his first game on the back line.
Senior Johnny Bieszczad and sophomore Bennett Hewett will likely split time at left fullback and hulking senior Daniel Mladek, in his third varsity season, will man what Johnstone calls the “holding midfielder” slot. As the back man in a diamond-shaped center, Mladek is responsible for getting the Raiders out of their own end and helping pin opponents in theirs.
“You really have to know your options before the ball even gets to you in that position,” Johnstone said. “We had (2021 graduate) Tyler St. Martin there last year and he looked like he was playing slow but his decisions were fast.”
In front of Mladek and responsible for more offense is Oliveira, the type of futbol-first competitor regularly found at Hanover but less often elsewhere in the Upper Valley. A gifted dribbler, passer and shooter who loves to dance through traffic, Oliveira often shows why he plays for a higher-level club team. However, he also absorbs a pounding.
Opponents incur yellow cards and must defend free kicks, but if their tackles cause Oliveira to limp or exit, Lebanon suffers the most in the end.
“Rob wants me to play the ball to the strikers’ feet or to knock a through ball,” Oliveira said. “I’ll play it out left and right more, or make a run if I get the ball back. I’ll do whatever he wants me to do.”
Varsity veteran and senior Simon Amaro occupies the right wing and roughneck junior Will McGee the left. Amaro is faster and perhaps more skilled, but you don’t want to battle McGee for a soccer ball, hockey puck or dinner roll. The son of former Lebanon standout Dan McGee is a fierce competitor with a solid trunk and powerful legs.
“In the past, those two might have been sort of our checking players,” Johnstone said. “You toss them in and they grind and grind and turn the other team over. But I think they’ll have more of an offensive impact this season.”
Lebanon graduated strikers Emmanuel Bello and Aidan Yates earlier this year. Neither was a consistent impact player, although each had his moments. It’s here, however, that the Raiders might be most improved, starting with the addition of Latvian striker and senior exchange student Krists Putans.
At a lanky 6-foot-4, Putans is still adjusting to his U.S. arrival and a new team, but burst through the defense and finished in highly-technical fashion against both Hanover and Concord. He ripped pinpoint shots past hapless goalkeepers, twice against the Crimson Tide in fewer than 40 minutes of play.
“He’s unbelievable, coming in here and doing the things he’s doing,” Oliveira said. “I’ve heard we never got good European players in the past, but Krists’ composure and finishing are crazy.”
Lebanon plays a two-forward formation and slight, left-footed junior Birhanu Harriman and sophomore Nick Brill figure to join Putans in a three-man rotation. Harriman is one of New Hampshire’s better distance runners and Brill one of the fastest. The pair gave JV opponents fits last fall and Brill, especially, will continue to cause them on the varsity level.
“He’s learning to be a soccer player, not just a sprinter,” Johnstone said of Brill, a three-sport athlete who relishes competition whether on the pitch, the basketball court or the baseball diamond. “He’s starting to lift his head up and consider his options after he turns the corner on a defender.”
Johnstone is clearly enjoying the hand he’s been dealt and has nurtured, but cautions that great team chemistry sometimes doesn’t survive the preseason.
“Right now, everyone gets to play,” the coach said. “But you never know how kids adapt to their roles, particularly if they change because there’s real competition in practice. We don’t have one star player, but we have a lot of very good ones and getting in the lineup isn’t going to be easy for some of them.”
Really, though, would you rather be the Raiders’ opponents?
Notes: Out injured for the time being are freshman midfielder Otto Bourne, the younger brother of former Lebanon starter Cooper Bourne, and senior defender Seth Carl. Johnstone almost never plays freshmen but thinks Bourne could see regular time… The Raiders coach is 303-145-39 in his career and has reached five state title games without a triumph. Hanover coach Rob Grabill, however, believes that streak will be snapped this season. “This is the year that Captain Ahab gets his white whale,” Grabill said with a wink after his team’s scrimmage setback to Lebanon.
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