By Tris Wykes
Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021
NASHUA, N.H. – Rob Johnstone couldn’t believe it. The longtime Lebanon High boys soccer coach had seen his third-seeded team utterly dominate Kingswood during the first half of a Tuesday NHIAA Division II semifinal at Stellos Stadium and now… this?
On the artificial turf, Raiders netminder Easton Wykes also watched in horror. The 10th-seeded Knights hadn’t tested him with a single shot on goal, but three minutes remained before halftime when a seemingly harmless cross caromed off teammate Griffin Gamache’s leg. Acquiring backspin as it rose and suddenly sank, the ball wobbled towards the far post.
“It broke from 12 to 6, like a curveball,” said Wykes, a baseball catcher.
Had the deflection gone in, Kingswood’s startling playoff run might well have continued. Instead, the ball kissed the crossbar and bounced away, keeping the contest scoreless and becoming a notable afterthought during Lebanon’s 4-0 victory.
“It was basically the first time they had the ball in our end of the field,” said Johnstone, whose 16-2 squad will face top-seeded Oyster River (17-0-1) in Friday’s 5:30 p.m. final. “Griffin did what he was supposed to, but next thing you know, the ball’s up and off the bar.
“I was like, ‘You have got to be kidding me’,” Johnstone said. “It spun in triple slow motion.”
Kingswood (9-9-1), which upset seventh-seeded Merrimack Valley and second-seeded Milford en route to the semifinals, epitomized the soccer cliche about parking one’s bus in front of the goal. Keeping nine players back, the Knights were outshot, 20-1, and lost the corner-kick battle, 7-3.
Nonetheless, the first half was scoreless and the prospect of penalty kicks, which both teams had survived during the quarterfinals, loomed in the distance. Inside the Raiders locker room, intermission discussion centered on how to best break down Kingswood’s packed-in defense.
“Even though you prepare for that mentally and in training, it becomes frustrating,” said Johnstone, who told his team what to expect after speaking with his Milford counterpart. “Instead of trying to get the ball through them, we had to try and get service into the (penalty) area and get bodies there.”
It took less than a minute for Johnstone’s reminder to bear fruit. Right back Griffin Auch received a lateral pass just beyond the box’s outer, right corner and uncorked a beautiful, sinking cross that center midfielder Ryan Oliveira headed on the run. The ball, initially sent by Auch towards the far post, instead bounced inside the near pole.
“Griffin and I have that great chemistry,” Oliveira said of his fellow senior. “I looked at him and he saw me and I just knew he was going to cross it right there. In a split second, I saw the ball right in front of me and headed it and hoped for the best.
“The second we scored that goal, I felt like the energy on our team went all the way up. When we’re all on the same link, there’s no stopping us.”
Now in dire straits, Kingswood began to press forward, only to surrender an improbable tally by reserve striker Birhanu Harriman, also one of New Hampshire’s best cross country runners.
The left-footed junior received a Daniel Mladek pass near the end line and outside the penalty area’s left side before firing what he later admitted was a failed cross towards the far post with 23 minutes remaining. Unexpectedly, the ball curved inside the pole for a 2-0 lead.
“The first goal was so critical, because then Kingswood had to come out a bit and it was back to plan A, which was to stretch them through passing,” Johnstone said. “They were extending against us and suddenly, those seams and lanes were there and we combined to get through them and got chance after chance.
“Now, that (defensive) block is 50 yards up the field and we have space to get in behind it. But it doesn’t happen until you get the first goal.”
The score moved to 3-0 fewer than 10 minutes later when another junior, starting striker Nick Brill, received a Mladek feed on the right side and embarked on a 40-yard sprint that left three defenders in his wake.
Brill, also a basketball and baseball player and perhaps his school’s most-improved athlete during the past year, fired a shot off the near post that caromed back to him. With goalkeeper Caleb Russo down and out, Brill braked, trapped the bouncing ball with his chest and fired it home.
“That was ridiculous because he hit a hammer off the post, then killed it and hit it again,” Johnstone said. “Nick’s become a soccer player, with explosive speed and a true goal scorer’s mentality.”
The evening’s last tally occurred with 13 minutes to play and after Mladek leapt to head down an Oliveira corner kick. The redirected ball deflected off a defender and to an unguarded Brill at the near post, from where he cashed his second check.
“Daniel is our foundation of getting the ball in the back and playing it up,” Oliveira said of his senior classmate, who also excels at cross country skiing. “He always gets that ball and plays it to the right players at the right times. Multiple times this season, we’ve scored goals because of Daniel’s passing IQ.”
Lebanon lost at Oyster River, 3-1, on Sept. 28 and must again contend with the Bobcats’ high-pressure attack Friday.
“That game brought us down to earth,” said Oliveira, whose team entered the contest 7-0. “I told everyone to remember the feeling. I hate losing but I’m glad we lost that game because we got better as a team and got hungry to win more games.”
Notes: Lebanon beat Hanover, 2-0, during the arch-rivals’ preseason scrimmage. The third-seeded Marauders face top-seeded Nashua South in the Division I final, which is scheduled to be played after the Division II title match… Goalkeeper Cobie Delisle, who broke both his ankle and a bone in his leg during a Sept. 21 game at Pembroke, said he expects to get out of his cast in two weeks. Delisle, who doesn’t play a winter sport, is hopeful he’ll be back to full strength for lacrosse. He’s one of the Raiders’ starting defensemen… Johnstone, in his 28th season, has reached the finals five times without a victory… Wykes’ first name was pronounced “Instin” by the public-address announcer, who predictably also stumbled over the surname of outside back John Bieszczad.
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