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Cardinals Soar in Opener

Stevens Rolls to Easy Victory as Mascoma Rebuilds

  • Stevens Daniel Croteau (9), right, uses his head to pass the ball to teammate Spenser Root during Tuesday's match against Mascoma in West Canaan.  Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Stevens Daniel Croteau (9), right, uses his head to pass the ball to teammate Spenser Root during Tuesday's match against Mascoma in West Canaan. Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Stevens midfielder Ryan Napsey, left, jumps over Mascoma defender Conner Morley on Tuesday in West Canaan. Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Stevens midfielder Ryan Napsey, left, jumps over Mascoma defender Conner Morley on Tuesday in West Canaan. Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Stevens Daniel Croteau (9), right, uses his head to pass the ball to teammate Spenser Root during Tuesday's match against Mascoma in West Canaan.  Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Stevens midfielder Ryan Napsey, left, jumps over Mascoma defender Conner Morley on Tuesday in West Canaan. Valley News - Sarah Priestap

West Canaan — Seven minutes remained in a lopsided match when Mascoma High boys soccer coach Tanya Rej saw her backup goalkeeper, Conner Gill, go down with an apparent injury.

Gill called it a dislocated shoulder; it turned out to be a broken collarbone. Either way, Rej needed an emergency substitute and called to her bench for one. Standing next to Rej as Gill walked slowly to the sidelines, senior forward Nick Perez quickly shot his left arm into the air.

So give the Royals this much, even in the face of an 8-1 loss to Stevens on Tuesday: They’re keeping up their enthusiasm.

Early indications are pointing toward a difficult sixth season at the helm for Rej and Mascoma. Five graduation losses took away many of the Royals’ strengths from last year, scoring not the least or first. Freshmen start in three positions, and both Berlin and the Cardinals (1-0) feasted on an inexperienced defense for eight goals in Mascoma’s first two matches.

Rej saw such youth coming. That it’s enthusiastic youth makes things easier.

“The kids are great as far as their intensity piece to it, but we’re just a young group,” Rej said. “Even at best, we’re trying but still not able to connect all those passes. It’s that experience piece.”

Stevens scored twice in the opening six minutes and never trailed. Zach Bunnell recorded a hat trick with an assist to power the Cardinals, who received one-goal, one-assist efforts from Daniel Croteau, Kyle Hamel and Matt Mock.

“Last year, we were pretty defensive-minded; I just didn’t want to give up a lot of goals,” second-year Stevens coach Jason Stone said. “This year, we’re going kind of the other way. We’ve got a pretty solid back four, but we’re trying to change our formation to get forward a little bit more, give ourselves chances to score more goals.”

The Royals (0-2) and Stevens ended last season on roughly the same plane, with similar records and first-round exits in the New Hampshire Division III tournament. Where Mascoma lost its strength to graduation, the Cardinals returned theirs as they try to build — or rebuild — a soccer identity.

Bunnell and Croteau appear to be capable of serving as Stevens’ midfield engine. The two worked frequent combinations to solve the Mascoma defense, either with each other or with teammates who then produced quality chances on the Royals’ net.

“They work hard in the offseason, too,” Stone said. “We have some guys who do some offseason stuff, but they work at it, and it shows. They play together quite a bit, so they’re really used to what each other is going to do. They’re our key. We have some good, fast strikers, but they are the key to getting them the ball.”

After a couple of good early stops from starting Mascoma keeper Kyle Wilson (six saves), the Cards got to work. Jordan Haines went top shelf on a feed from freshman Ethan Sweet at 4:41, to which Bunnell added on a solo run through the right side of the Royals’ defense 61 seconds later.

Midfielder Hunta Hawes firmly finished a Perez cross to draw Mascoma back at 8:07, but the rest of the half belonged to Stevens’ midfield aces. Croteau, a junior, set up Bunnell’s second of the match on a perfect through ball at 14:42. Croteau converted on a give-and-go with Hamel at 22:31, and Hamel made it 5-1 about a minute later on a goalmouth pass from Sweet (two assists).

Stevens struck three more times after the interval. Mock and Bunnell took turns setting each other to close the Cardinals’ ledger to add to a Mascoma own goal shortly after a sliding Wilson save.

“I think Stevens looks really good,” Rej said. “We were really competitive with them last year. We were optimistic coming into it. They did a really nice job.”

Rej and co-coach Keli Green expect to hit the reset button regularly this season. They’ve taken to treating every half of every match as a mini-game: Regardless of what the scoreboard says, it resets to 0-0 for the Royals every time.

Mascoma played a stronger second half and was unfortunate not to put another ball past Stevens netminder Austin Putnam (two saves). Midfielder Ben Jones and defender Will Morrison narrowly missed scoring chances early. Jones forced a diving save from Putnam in the 46th minute. Moving to midfield after Gill’s arrival, Wilson chipped Putnam from 20 yards with five minutes left, the ball catching the crossbar flush.

These will be the little steps that Rej hopes will turn into concrete results in the future.

“I’ve done really well here at Mascoma as far as keeping the kids motivated and having them go 100 percent, so I’m lucky,” she said. “I feel blessed with that piece. …

“In any sport, you have that rotation of a good season and a rebuilding season,” she added with a grin. “It’s part of the job.”

Corner Kicks: Gill came on in goal for Wilson in the 54th minute when the latter sustained a knock on his right shin. Gill made four saves in 19 minutes before Perez, a right-side midfielder, stepped in for the duration without having to make a stop. … Stone worked as an assistant to longtime Lebanon High boys soccer coach Rob Johnstone for six years before taking over his alma mater’s team last fall. “He’s a genius defensively, so that zone defending in the back works really well,” said Stone, who graduated from Stevens in 1994. “I learned that from him.” … Mascoma hosts Inter-Lakes on Friday. The Cardinals have their home opener with Monadnock on Friday as well.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.