I HAD the pleasure of stumbling upon Hanover boys’ soccer coach and New Hampshire high school soccer guru Rob Grabill while we both attended Sunday’s D-II girls’ final between Hanover and Milford.
First, any time talking soccer with Grabill is time well spent. More importantly, though, he asked if I would be getting a chance to further romanticize the heavyweight battle between Bedford and Manchester Central in Saturday’s D-I boys’ final. The answer: Yes.
That was a match between arguably the two best teams in the state and it played out as advertised. It was the first time in my four years of covering NHIAA soccer that I had seen a head-to-head battle featuring teams stacked with technically-sound players up and down the roster. You’ll see teams with a player or two who show some special skills, but the Bulldogs and Little Green each had several. Bedford offered Ryan Sledjeski, Austin Edwards, Nate Statires, Vitor Rodrigues and Graham Reynolds while Central countered with Joshue Assantha, Thamba Mbungu, Rahul Drukpa, Sam Latona, Paolo Tedesco and Max Kalampalikis. That’s just naming a handful for each, but the lists could go on.
The pace of play was incredible. Players were turning on a dime, making lightning-quick precision passes, and relentlessly carrying and pursuing balls while being hounded by the opposition step for step. Best of all, though, was the unselfish play displayed. Despite all the skill on display, no player tried to play hero or be bigger than the game. That’s what makes for a compelling and unique contest, and Bedford coach Stuart Pepper agreed.
“I think it was just a great game of soccer. There haven’t been many better finals that the NHIAA has hosted,” Pepper said. “You’re talking about 22 players out on the field giving it their all and creating just some superb plays. There’s nothing like it.”
As for the result, it was no surprise, to me or Pepper, that Sledjeski imposed his will to push Bedford to a victory. I figured it would be something more technical than a couple of big boots to set up Bedford’s last two strikes, but the booming lead passes were something to marvel nonetheless.
What stood out more to me in terms of technical skill on those goals was the concentration of Zach Verow and Edwards in corralling Sledjeski’s kicks. Verow had to accelerate to catch up to what amounted to a field-length kick and then collect off a slick surface. Edwards likely never took his eyes off the ball when it left Sledjeski’s foot and hit off another head before he stepped in to finish with a header of his own.
DESPITE A tough result, you have to give kudos to Central keeper Owen Richmond for his efforts towards keeping Central on Bedford’s hip for as long as possible on Saturday. People might ask, “Why does the keeper on a top-class team like Central need any more recognition?” Well, Richmond played just 15 minutes during the regular season while backing up Alex Walker, the Little Green’s No. 1 goalie. Richmond was thrust into a starting role in Saturday’s spotlight game after Walker injured his leg during stoppage time in the Central’s semifinal win over Hanover.
If most of us were Richmond, we would have been shaking in our boots. He opted to rise to the occasion even after allowing a goal in the first 10 minutes of the game. Richmond came back with nearly 65 minutes of clean soccer, featuring some nifty saves and good close-outs on both breakaways and crosses, before the Bulldogs found a way to prevail.
Richmond can also thank fullbacks Mbungu, Arkam Traore, Will Chappell and Emin Mujic for constructing a formidable shield throughout the night.
I GAVE Hanover girls’ coach Doug Kennedy no time to let his Marauders’ title win over Milford sink in before asking a question I know I’m not the only one asking. Will the Hanover girls ever join the boys in Division I?
Sunday’s win gave Hanover its third Division II title in five years while it’s been semifinalist in each of the last six seasons. That run began just as the Hanover boys made the jump to Division I, which has yet to produce a championship but has proven to be a successful jump. For Kennedy, the idea of a move brings mixed thoughts.
“I don’t know and it really is a very good question,” Kennedy said. “You could look at the three titles in five years and say, ‘Oh gosh, you’re dominating.’ I wouldn’t say we’ve dominated, though. We’re good and have found our way through, but I’m not sure we’re dominant.
“It’s in the back of my mind and maybe something we need to think about. But I wouldn’t say right here, right now that we’re running roughshod over Division II or anything.”
The Marauders needed penalty kicks to decide this year’s final and quarterfinal match while they outlasted 2017 champion Bow in a 1-0 semifinal win.
The next time the Hanover could opt to make a jump would be the fall of 2020, when key players like keeper Bella Bardales, forward Charlotte Johnson and center fullback Ellie Stannard will be seniors.
PETER LALLY is a numbers guy. I say that because of the math he was able to string together on the two-year dominance of the Central girls, who are back-to-back D-I champions. Here’s what Lally provided:
• The Little Green scored 93 goals this season, which runs their two-year total to 172. What’s more impressive is the disparity in goals scored versus goals against as Central allowed just 11 goals the last two seasons, including just six on the way to this year’s title.
• Erin Flurey has the new Central single-season goals mark at 26 tallies after two strikes in Sunday’s final. The sophomore did that while missing the final three games of the regular season.
• Paige LaBerge’s two-goal effort on Sunday upped her career scoring to 72, which is a program record. She’ll take those considerable talents to Florida State University next fall.
EVERY ONCE in a while you see a father-son duo win an NHIAA championships. The Miller family did something along those lines with the Campbell of Litchfield boys’ soccer team on Saturday, but it didn’t involve anyone playing in the game.
Campbell, the new Division III champion, is run by head coach Aaron Miller, whose staff consists of his father, Bill, and younger brother, Zach. Aaron Miller pulled double duty this season as Campbell’s coach and an assistant coach for the Plymouth State University women’s soccer team. When Aaron was absent with duties at PSU, Bill and Zach took care of the Cougars’ operations.
“Bill prompted us with this one. It’s something we’ve done over the years with camps and other teams,” Aaron Miller said. The Millers are the same family that runs Miller’s Soccer School, which has instructional camps out of Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro the last 25 years. “We’ve always been there to support each other and fun to be able to do it with them. I had the chance to play with Zach collegiately and then Bill, of course, has coached us forever. It’s just what we do.”
Aaron Miller took the lead role for Campbell, but Bill and Zach were certainly not bystanders. Bill Miller has 175 career NHIAA head coaching wins, according to the New Hampshire Soccer Coaches Association archives, and Aaron Miller said his father offered the Cougars lessons on psychology and philosophy aspects of soccer. Aaron Miller credited Zach Miller, who focuses on keeper-specific coaching, with mentoring and preparing Campbell goalie and title-game hero Brendan Douglas for what turned into a title season for the Cougars.
“There’s about 100 years worth of coaching here,” Aaron Miller said. “We’re at a point where we really only need to look at each other to know what the others are thinking and what needs to happen on the field. It also allows us to push each other a little more and what comes out is a type of brand at this point. The family element is something these kids bought into, but winning this really falls back on the kids’ character and coachability.”