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Joe Duball's H.S. Soccer: It's far from lonely at the top in D-I

By JOE DUBALL
October 10. 2018 9:31PM




IT’S FAIR to assume anyone reading this column on a regular basis is getting a little tired of hearing about Division I girls’ soccer. Truth of the matter is you’re not going to find a more intriguing situation in NHIAA soccer than how this league will shake out come season’s end.

After Wednesday’s D-I slate, there are six teams in the running for top-four playoff seeds, each of which comes with a first-round bye. At least eight teams have a shot at a title based on regular-season matchups alone. The parity can’t be compared to any other boys or girls league this season, and it’s something that is surprising D-I coaches as well.

“You look at Nos. 1-8 and it really could kind of go either way,” Bedford coach Michelle Winning said after Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Manchester Central. “If the four teams that are up top right now win out, then we should probably all remain there. It’s going to be a tough task, though, because all the teams we are all playing are hunting for those last playoff spots.”

Londonderry (11-1-1), Exeter (11-2), Central (10-2) and Bedford (9-2-1) would be the top four seeds, in that order, if the playoffs began today. The Bulldogs hold a tiebreaker over Concord for the final first-round bye by virtue of a 3-0 win over the Crimson Tide on Sept. 27. Joining Concord at the front of the outside-looking-in group is Pinkerton (8-3-2), while Winnacunnet of Hampton (7-5) and Merrimack (7-5-1) are potent clubs hoping to find the right side of the bracket.

Those seven teams are the ones that have been creating fireworks as it relates to the balance this league is showing. Not all of the current top four teams’ losses have come at the hands of fellow division elite, as often happened in seasons past. Londonderry’s lone blemish came against Pinkerton. Central faltered against Merrimack. Exeter slipped up against Concord. There is no super team among this group.

The logjam in the standings has plenty to do with pedigree, but a lot to do with weather wreaking havoc on schedules as well.

“You’re talking about delaying and rescheduling games to where we were playing three games in three days last week,” Central coach Peter Lally said on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of wear for any team in that kind of stretch. It was tough stuff despite coming out and getting it done.”

Scheduling problems will likely continue as Exeter and Concord are slated for games today that have a good chance of being pushed back a couple days due to expected all-day rain.

Winning noted the next week, which is the final week of the regular season, is crucial for many teams. After duking it out on Tuesday, Central and Bedford will not be among those in danger of slipping up during the home stretch, given their schedules. The Little Green’s remaining slate features teams with a combined 14-29-6 record this season while Bedford’s final opponents are a cumulative 13-32-6.

The other teams still vying to move up in the top half of the playoff picture are the ones to watch. In fact, Oct. 16 might be the most decisive day when it comes to final seedings. That day features three games to watch: Londonderry at Merrimack, Nashua South at Exeter, and Winnacunnet at Concord.

The Lancers have proven to be at their best on the attack when they’re able to negotiate free space to use their speed and agility. The Tomahawks have shown their ability to thwart such attacks, the prime example coming in their win over Central.

Exeter hasn’t had the benefit of many regular-season matches against top teams this season, and the Blue Hawks have played to a 2-2 mark against current top-seven teams after Tuesday’s 2-0 loss to Londonderry. The matchup with South (6-4-3) is an interesting one given the Panthers’ current roll, which features a 6-1-1 record since Sept. 14, including a five-match unbeaten streak.

Concord’s last gasp at a top-four seed may well come down to its battle with Winnacunnet. The Crimson Tide will need a few other things to happen to teams in front of them, but winning this game is a must to hold out any hope of making a late push for a playoff bye.

Bedford-Central: a classic

THE BIGGEST game of the week, the Division I boys’ regular season, and arguably all of NHIAA soccer, lived up to the hype on Tuesday as Bedford tipped previously undefeated Central, 3-2, in overtime. The Bulldogs (11-1) were down a pair to the Little Green (12-1) with eight minutes remaining when Vitor Rodrigues and Graham Reynolds scored within three minutes of each other to knot things at 2-2. Reynolds was at it again in overtime, heading in a corner kick to send Bedford off with a win in a possible preview of the D-I title game.

“That was one of the best high school games I’ve ever been a part of,” Bedford coach Stuart Pepper said. “Both teams playing attacking, skillful soccer at a break-neck pace. I told (Central coach Chris LaBerge) that their attacking six are the most dynamic group of players my Bedford teams have ever faced. To compete with that group and eventually come out on top was hugely rewarding.”

Pepper said Reynolds’ effort throughout the win was easily the best he’s seen from the senior while playing for the Bulldogs. Ryan Sledjeski also contributed up front as he tormented Central’s defense with his pace and strength, while center fullbacks Quentin McDonough and Aidan Kenney absorbed all the pressure they could to hold off the Little Green’s cunning offense, which got goals from Paolo Tedesco and Rahul Drukpa.

Beyond some seeding implications, Pepper acknowledged that the win meant little to his squad, which is trying to avoid an early-round playoff upset for the third consecutive season while aiming for the program’s first D-I title. With that in mind, the Bulldogs did gain a sense of confidence with their rally.

Estremera leads way

THERE ARE plenty of reasons for the Belmont girls’ soccer team’s success this season, but senior Julianna Estremera in undoubtedly the key for the Division III-leading Red Raiders (10-2-1). Estremera was the leading scorer for Belmont last season and continues to produce this season, tallying 13 goals and seven assists through 13 games.

Those numbers are by no means eye-popping, but the significance and timeliness of the striker’s work can’t be understated. Tuesday’s 1-0 win for Belmont over Berlin came by way of Estremera, and she’s saved the Red Raiders with conversions in a season-opening 1-1 draw with Derryfield and a 1-0 win against Campbell. Additionally, Estremera has four multi-goal games this season.

“She just wants to be the best,” Belmont coach Mark Dwalga said. “You won’t see her take a play off and that’s just who she is. It comes from the will to win. No matter what the circumstances are, she continues to push.”

Estremera continues to produce with opposing defenses beginning to take notice, which has opened up opportunities for the likes of Katie Gagnon, Sierra Bourque and Kailey Gerbig.

“We’re still a very young team, and having a player like Julianna makes the game easier on the rest(of the players),” said Dwalga, who has just two other seniors besides Estremera on the squad. “We lean on her, Kaitlyn Delisle and Lizzy Fleming a lot. Having those presences makes it easy for other teams to lose track of the freshmen and sophomores, giving all of them an opportunity to grow.

Leading a Belmont team is not uncommon for Estremera. She’s been a stalwart for Dwalga on the girls’ basketball team, needing 331 points this winter to reach 1,000 for her career. She’s also a key contributor on Belmont’s softball team, playing shortstop and pitching.

High School Soccer appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader during the season. To reach Joe Duball, e-mail jduball@unionleader.com.


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