By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

LEBANON – Late in the Lebanon High boys soccer team’s 4-0 defeat of visiting Stevens on Saturday, a blue SUV sped past the field on adjacent Old Etna Road. The vehicle’s occupants laid on the horn, blew through the Heater Road intersection and its four stop signs and disappeared over a rise with a screech of  their tires.

The Cardinals went with a somewhat similar approach to start the contest, adding a third striker to their front line and producing the futbol equivalent of a full-court press. 

Lebanon players Daniel Mladek (6), Griffin Gamache (13), Ryan Oliveira (10) Simon Amaro (2) and Francis Calandrella (22) react to a descending punt along with Stevens’ Kayden Laclair (9) and Matt Goss (15). Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Homestanding Oyster River had used the same tactic earlier in the week while handing the Raiders (9-1) their first loss, but Stevens, missing two starters because of injury and illness, didn’t quite have the bodies and talent to pull it off.

“We knew we couldn’t just sit back and take it again,” said Cardinals coach Jason Stone, whose side extended Lebanon to overtime during the foes’ season opener. “It was almost an experiment, something to have fun with. We knew that the game was probably not going to go great for us, so let’s play three strikers and confuse them.

“Unfortunately, it only worked for about six minutes.”

Lebanon took the lead during the ninth minute after striker Nick Brill drew his defender towards the right sideline, then ran onto a pass laid inside the Cardinal by wing Simon Amaro. Brill dribbled towards the near post, swerved out and around a defender and beat goalkeeper Cooper Moote from a sharp angle. 

The hosts doubled their advantage eight minutes later, Krists Putans heading in a Bennett Hewett cross. The score moved to 3-0 with nine minutes remaining in the first half when Amaro held off a defender to receive an Otto Bourne cross on the right side of the Stevens box. He beat Moote inside the near post after a couple of quick touches.

Lebanon’s Simon Amaro scores against Stevens goalkeeper Cooper Moote. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

The visitors’ bad fortunate played into the final tally when a defender was injured and couldn’t regain his feet. Putans took advantage of the hole in the Cardinals’ back line, firing low from the penalty area’s left side and inside the far post for his 14th goal. The Latvian exchange student also has eight assists.

“We wanted to play the ball long from the midfield today, but we made too many little passes and turned the ball over,” said Stone, who has yet to have his entire starting lineup healthy and playing together. “That’s not how it was set up. But to be honest, the kids adapted to a strategy I (outlined) 30 minutes before kickoff.”

Stevens played the second of five games in nine days. The Cardinals have only 22 players in their entire program, varsity and JV, and had only seven healthy players from the former available during a recent game. Midfielder Dylan Chambers and Moote are senior standouts but too often don’t have adequate support.

Saturday was the first time Stevens (3-5) hadn’t played a one-goal game this fall. The Cardinals fell for the fourth time in their last five contests. 

“I love my team,” Stone said. “Once we get healthy and if we can win some games, I think we can be dangerous in the playoffs’ first round.”

Lebanon’s Ryan Oliveira (10) has the ball tipped away by Coe-Brown’s Josh Warner. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Lebanon is headed to the postseason but the question is how deep a run the Raiders can make. The loss of senior goalkeeper Colbie Delisle to a broken ankle on Sept. 21 shook the team to a degree. After auditioning field players Will McGee and Griffin Auch, 28th-year coach Rob Johnstone elected to go with 2020 JV backstop Easton Wykes, who began the current campaign as a practice player and the team manager.

With that in mind, the Raiders work to limit shots even more than before, and Wykes has faced only a handful of them during three of his four starts. Aiding the cause is a strong back line featuring center backs Francis Calandrella and Griffin Gamache. The latter was particularly effective Friday during Lebanon’s 5-0 defeat of visiting Coe-Brown.

“He’s evolved technically and tactically,” Johnstone said of a senior with an eye-catching blend of speed and tenacity. “Griffin’s always been fast and he chases people down. But now he gives ground when necessary and takes better angles to defend the ball.”

Lebanon spent a majority of the first half at Oyster River in its own end before flipping the field after intermission. The Raiders’ planning for how to avoid again being put on their heels began before their sweat had dried.

Amaro, one of Lebanon’s 11 seniors, said his squad, which outscored foes, 41-1, between halftime of its opener and the start of its clash at Oyster River, had become too comfortable and needed stark recognition of what playoff opposition is likely to bring.

Lebanon’s Nick Brill (4) and Coe-Brown’s Josh Warner cross paths. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“That was a reality check,” he said. “it was surprising to play a team as talented or more talented than us and that could run with our fastest players defensively. We couldn’t play the balls we usually do to penetrate.

Lebanon has recently concentrated on using vertical or diagonal passes and crosses and focused on getting them to a teammate’s feet, not just in his general direction. Competing on Oyster River’s artificial turf was also an adjustment.

“The game’s a little faster and you have to be more in tune with settling the ball,” Amaro said. “Those kids were more positionally aware of how the ball played.”

One of Johnstone’s messages this week was that the Raiders have players with the requisite skill to work around their first defender. That allows their teammates time to spread out and give the dribbler multiple options that can quickly evolve into shots or dangerous feeds into the box. 

“We need to have faith in our creative players in the attacking third and not overloaded the space out of good intentions and being overeager,” the coach said. 

Notes: Hewett and Bourne recorded their first varsity points. Each have older brothers who previously played for the Raiders and the latter is one of the rare freshmen to see varsity playing time for the program… Stone, in his 11th year at the Cardinals’ helm, is a Cornish product who began playing soccer in Claremont at age 6, graduated from Stevens in 1994 and served six years as Lebanon’s junior varsity coach… Johnstone called up a group of JV players and inserted them into Saturday’s late going. Among them were goalkeeper Zach Aldrich, fullback Connor Chinn and forward Domenico Pentella, who’s been lighting up the lower-level scoreboard.

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Coe-Brown’s Max Heigis (21) and Lebanon’s Simon Amaro (2) perform a pas de deux. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.