By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

MILFORD, N.H. – You can only play the hand you’re dealt, but that doesn’t make Wednesday’s 2-1 loss at Milford any easier for the Lebanon High boys soccer team to absorb. 

The Raiders (11-2) drew a bad beat when senior goalkeeper Colbie Delisle suffered a broken ankle last month. Because of a void in the netminder supply chain, Lebanon entered the season without a true reserve, although Easton Wykes, the JV team’s 2020 backstop, was taking shots in practice while serving as the varsity squad’s manager. 

Lebanon High goalkeeper Easton Wykes prepares to catch a corner kick in front of teammate John Bieszczad. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Rob Johnstone, Lebanon’s 28th-year coach, auditioned field players Will McGee and Griffin Auch days after Delisle’s injury, but ultimately decided using either would disrupt the lineup and went with Wykes. That plan survived six games before unraveling against the Spartans (12-0-1), although Johnstone was careful not to blame his rear guard.

“He’s a teenager and that happens,” Johnstone said after Wykes allowed a pair of second-half goals, the last a giveaway that handed Milford’s Ryan Constable a shot into an empty net with 24 minutes to play. “It happens in the World Cup. 

“So much of goalkeeping is communicating and reading the play and stopping chances before they happen. Jumping on through balls and crosses. Easton’s good there.”

Lebanon hoped it had learned from its first loss, a 3-1 setback at Oyster River (12-0-1) on Sept. 28. The Raiders generated considerably more offense Wednesday and had three scoring chances during the final 10 minutes, but the Spartans held the territorial advantage overall. 

A scoreless first half belonged to Milford, which repeatedly blew down the left wing, and Lebanon scrambled to defend horizontal passes and corner kicks. Center backs Griffin Gamache and Francis Calendrella cleaned up most of the mess, but the outer edges of the Raiders’ back line were clearly vulnerable. 

The Spartans opened the scoring two minutes after halftime when center back Colin Gregg pushed upfield on a throw-in from the left sideline. 

One of Milford’s 15 seniors, Gregg also serves as the football team’s kicker, and he deadened the toss with his chest before spinning, settling the ball and firing a 25-yard strike from outside the corner of the penalty area and under the bar.

Lebanon’s Daniel Mladek looks up after a midfield collision. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“We allowed a guy who’s not tightly marked to bring it down, turn, throw a little wiggle and shoot,” said Johnstone, who watched a jumping Wykes react too late to the humpbacked drive. “That’s a teachable moment that we need to learn from in order to get to the last game of the (season).

“Our response though, after both goals, was immediate and impressive. We swarmed them.”

Lebanon pulled even 11 minutes later. Freshman Otto Bourne, a midfielder who competes on the national club level, accelerated from midfield, sliding through the center of the usually-stingy Milford defense before laying the ball off to striker Krists Putans.

The Latvian exchange student first dribbled right, then reversed field before pounding a left-footed shot at diminutive freshman goalkeeper Avery Wilson.

A first-year netminder who only rarely engages in goal kicks or punts, Wilson dove right and blocked the ball, which bounced several times in seeming slow motion before an onrushing Angus Hall pounded a volley into the net’s roof.

“Otto created that goal by being decisive and not hanging back,” Johnstone said. 

Milford’s strikers, Constable and Conor Sullivan, are elusive, athletic and skilled. They also possess startling closing speed, which Wykes discovered two minutes after his team’s tally when Gamache, facing his net and under light pressure, played the ball back to his netminder. 

Wykes received the ball and attempted to dribble a couple of steps to his right before clearing. Constable, however, pounced on him from the back side, poked the ball towards the far sideline and fired the globe home to the delight of the nearby student section, perched on a steep bank behind the end line.

Lebanon’s Angus Hall (23) is congratulated on his goal. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“That’s a tough one, because it’s the right play and then a mistake,” said Johnstone, whose team received three saves from Wykes, two of them outstanding. “But we’re still going to play the ball back like that when it makes sense.

“We played well for the last 40 minutes, but it’s an 80-minute game against the number one team in (NHIAA) Division II.”

Third-place Lebanon hosts fourth-place Hollis-Brookline (9-1-2) on Saturday. The Raiders are scheduled to finish the regular season next week by visiting Merrimack Valley (5-4-4) and hosting Bow (8-5).

Notes: The two officials, who could have used a center referee, allowed the teams to go at one another fully and Johnstone wasn’t irritated, despite numerous flying bodies and Milford supporters’ howls. “It was physical in a good way, not dirty, and their coach thought the same thing,” he said. “There were some hard collisions but they weren’t reckless,”… Sophomore forward Nick Brill shone during the second half. “He unleashed the beast,” Johnstone said of the speedster. “He had an 80-yard end-to end-run and he was just going at people until the last rip of the game.”… Lebanon’s McGee continued to be sidelined by a foot injury and did not play… Milford’s girls soccer team claimed the Division II state crown last season, although it was awarded the title after Covid-19 complications in its opponent’s program canceled the championship game.

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Lebanon’s Angus Hall (23) goes up with a trio of Milford Spartans. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.