ROB JOHNSTONE recently caught up with his former soccer coach at Middlebury College, David Saward, over lunch. Saward retired after his 33rd season coaching the Middlebury men’s team in 2017, the same year that Johnstone once thought would be his 25th and last coaching the Lebanon High School boys’ team.

During his one year away from the pitch, Johnstone realized he is not ready to hang up his coaching whistle alongside Saward’s just yet.

After Ben Pearson, Lebanon’s coach last year, left in the offseason to become an assistant coach with the Colby-Sawyer College men’s soccer team, Johnstone jumped at the opportunity to return to his former post.

Johnstone, who has brought Lebanon to four state title games, stepped down following the 2017-18 school year primarily to watch his son, Owen, play at Ithaca College. During his freshman season last year, Owen suffered his fifth documented concussion and he is now a student assistant coach on Kyle Dezotell‘s staff.

“That was the motivation — to have that flexibility to get in a car and travel on a Friday or Saturday (to watch Owen play),” Johnstone said of his decision to retire. “But with those developments and the fact that this was coinciding with Ben Pearson not returning to Lebanon — once he decided not to come back and the job was open, I really missed it.

“I’m 53. This is my 26th year (coaching Lebanon). This has been half of my life.”

Even during his brief retirement, the Plainfield resident stayed around the game. During the fall, Johnstone spent two nights a week aiding his friend and Hanover High boys’ soccer coach Rob Grabill at practices and did the same Monday through Thursday with the Windsor (Vt.) High boys’ and girls’ teams. Johnstone teaches at Windsor.

Grabill said Johnstone’s work with his defensive unit played a vital role in the Marauders reaching the Division I semifinals last season. Helping the Windsor programs and Grabill at Hanover allowed Johnstone to view the game through a different lens.

“You kind of step back and really almost get a different perspective of the game,” Johnstone said. “You watch it and see what’s happening without the other things all coaches have to be managing in real time ...I was even able to maybe pick up things that maybe should’ve been obvious when I was in charge but weren’t necessarily. That was cool to have the game slow down and see things that sometimes get lost in the chaos.”

The practices also made Johnstone miss being a head coach, implementing his vision and putting his stamp on a program.

When he returned to Lebanon this past offseason, Johnstone found himself leading a team with few recognizable faces. The New Hampshire Soccer Coaches Association Hall of Famer only coached about five of his 21-player roster during his previous tenure.

While most are new to them, Lebanon’s players immediately bought into Johnstone’s coaching methods and approach.

Just as he did during his previous 25 years leading the team, Johnstone has emphasized defending with this year’s Raiders team. In regard to his approach to the game, the 1988 Middlebury graduate still echoes Saward’s philosophy: don’t make a simple game complicated.

“You can talk formations but really that’s what it comes down to — win (the ball), respond,” Johnstone said. “When we’re defending, be compact. When we’re attacking, we need to stretch them out. Within that very broad scope, I try to let players be able to be creative within these principles.”

Johnstone described this year’s Lebanon team as a tough-minded group with some high-end players like senior midfielder Logan Falzarano. Johnstone saw that tough-minded characteristic from his team over its first three Division II games: a 3-2 season-opening win at Hollis/Brookline, a 2-1 home triumph over Bow and a 2-1 overtime loss at defending champion ConVal of Peterborough.

Lebanon hosts last year’s runner-up, Coe-Brown Northwood Academy, today at 4 p.m.

“For me, the tests along the way when we’ve been faced with adversity and how they’ve responded, so far I’ve really been impressed with these guys,” Johnstone said of his players. “I know they’re going to get better at the technical soccer stuff but some things are not coach-driven, certainly. They’re in the character and makeup of the team.”

Several Division II coaches entered the season expecting Lebanon to be in the title hunt with Johnstone back at the helm. The Raiders have won at least 10 games in each of the past 14 seasons. Johnstone is aiming for another double-digit output and a home playoff win this fall.

While he has his eyes on a certain amount of victories this season, Johnstone does not have any number circled when it comes to how many more years he wants to coach Lebanon.

“There’s definitely no timeline...no number of wins or years,” Johnstone said. “Just for me, as long as love it, there’s no end in sight.”

Alvirne's McKinley stars

It might not have looked like it to those in attendance but Alvirne of Hudson goalkeeper Paige McKinley had never made a varsity appearance before she entered the game in the Broncos’ 4-1 loss to Londonderry on Tuesday.

McKinley, a freshman who normally plays for Alvirne’s junior varsity team, entered the game around the 50th minute, when starting goalkeeper Brittney Whiting (eight saves) left due to injury.

McKinley stopped nine of the 10 shots she faced over the bout’s final 30 minutes. She tracked down two balls that were behind her back and cleared the ball off the goal line after a redirect from the crossbar.

Londonderry (3-0), which finished runner-up to Manchester Central last year, had 25 shots in the game.

“It was the first time she had ever played varsity,” Alvirne coach Jerry Ruigrok said of McKinley after Tuesday’s loss. “She’s very athletic and picking it up quick. She wasn’t even really a goalie before this year. She didn’t play there in middle school or on any of her travel teams. It was incredible to see her respond so well.”

Astros firing on all cylinders

Scoring was difficult for the Pinkerton Academy of Derry girls’ team last year but the Astros have had little problem doing so recently.

Following a 2-1 season-opening loss to Alvirne (2-1) on Sept. 3, the Astros have won each of their past two games — against Timberlane of Plaistow and Winnacunnet of Hampton — by 5-0 scores. Pinkerton will play at Spaulding (0-3) in Rochester tonight at 5:30 p.m. The Red Raiders were outscored 26-1 over their losses to Timberlane (2-1), Winnacunnet (1-2) and Bedford.

“We’ve just got to keep kind of improving on what we’re already good at,” Pinkerton coach Danielle Rappa said after her team’s win over Winnacunnet on Tuesday. “Just keep working on the positives and just kind of extending those. Last year we had trouble scoring, so the last couple of games where we’ve gotten a few goals have been encouraging for the girls.”

The High School Soccer column runs Thursdays during the season. Alex Hall can be reached at ahall@unionleader.com.