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Marauders’ Stay in D-I Has Been Delightful So Far

  • Hanover High's Rocco Linehan, right, jockeys for midfield position against Salem's Jordan Bowman during Thursday's game at Merriman-Branch Field in Hanover. Valley News- Tris Wykes

    Hanover High's Rocco Linehan, right, jockeys for midfield position against Salem's Jordan Bowman during Thursday's game at Merriman-Branch Field in Hanover. Valley News- Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Salem High's Zach Grady, left, tries to control a bouncing ball while under pressure from Hanover's Daniel Hazlett during Thursday's game at Merriman-Branch Field in Hanover. Valley News - Tris Wykes

    Salem High's Zach Grady, left, tries to control a bouncing ball while under pressure from Hanover's Daniel Hazlett during Thursday's game at Merriman-Branch Field in Hanover. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hanover High's Rocco Linehan, right, jockeys for midfield position against Salem's Jordan Bowman during Thursday's game at Merriman-Branch Field in Hanover. Valley News- Tris Wykes
  • Salem High's Zach Grady, left, tries to control a bouncing ball while under pressure from Hanover's Daniel Hazlett during Thursday's game at Merriman-Branch Field in Hanover. Valley News - Tris Wykes

Hanover — Two years ago, Hanover High boys soccer coach Rob Grabill and the school’s athletic administration agreed on an experiment: Move the Marauders to NHIAA Division I for better competition and see how it goes.

After a season and a half, including 25 wins in 28 matches, it’s safe to say the operation succeeded with flying colors.

Now 8-0 after bedeviling the Salem Blue Devils, 4-0, at Merriman-Branch Field on Thursday night, top-ranked Hanover now has the rest of D-I staring up in its direction. The match marked the first of three straight against some of the league’s metal — second-place Salem and Pinkerton sandwiching Saturday’s brunch date with Bedford — yet the Marauders have dispatched most who come their way like so much cannon fodder.

Nights like that are just … a blast.

“Honestly, I don’t know what it would be like to play us; I’ve always been curious about that,” senior tri-captain Evan Greenwald said. “We have respect for them, they have respect for us; that’s a mutual high school thing.

“There’s been a lot of fantastic teams, a lot of fantastic players, so the better the games, the more fun it is for us and our fans. The whole atmosphere is better when the competition is better.”

Instead of wondering what Lebanon, Souhegan or Oyster River are doing, Grabill now grabs his cellphone after a Marauder match and checks on up Pinkerton, Manchester Central or Concord. It’s a different set of rivals, and Hanover has found a comfortable, competitive space among them.

“Last year, we didn’t know what to expect,” Grabill said. “We scrimmaged plenty of Division I teams before in preseason. We knew we could compete. We didn’t know what it was going to be like over the course of the season.

“Division I teams are more physical; they have deeper benches. Last year was a year of learning and adaptation.”

Which has given way to a half-season of domination.

With an active midfield and speed all over Merriman-Branch’s artificial surface, Hanover suffocated Salem (5-2) with possession and pressure. The Marauders’ defense excelled as much for shutting down the visitors as simply keeping the ball off their feet.

The shutout was goalkeeper Alex Bynum’s seventh in eight matches. He hardly had to work: Salem’s only shot on goal — and an unintentional one at that — came in the 64th minute, well after two Daniel Hazlett strikes and one each from fellow seniors Xavier Tchana and Tomas LaPorta had given the hosts an unassailable edge.

“This year, Division I is everything we expected,” Grabill said. “All of these games are close. This is a 1-0 game, and then all of a sudden — boom-boom — we score a couple of goals and take control of the game. But we’ve got three senior strikers; they know what they’re doing. The seniors lead us in every aspect.”

Hazlett and Tchana give the Marauders speed and skill on the flanks. They spread touchline to touchline, comfortable in tight spaces and quick enough to exploit defenders to challenge them out wide.

Given wide-open space, both proved lethal against Salem. Hazlett started the scoring after just 6 minutes, 20 seconds, playing a give-and-go with sophomore midfielder Asa Berolzheimer and ripping a low drive from the left past keeper Kevin Strout (10 saves). A similar opening at 31:31 turned into a 2-0 cushion when LaPorta’s through ball sent Tchana to the same area of the field, with the same result.

A short corner with Hazlett set up LaPorta’s bullet through Strout’s hands at 34:52. Hazlett closed the scoring at 48:04, running down a rolling cross from Rocco Linehan to complete a counterattack.

“On the whole, I think we’re the same crew, the same bunch of boys out there having a good time,” said Greenwald, who harassed the Salem defense all night with aggressive flank runs out of the back. “I’ve been overly impressed over my four years at Hanover at how the team chemistry bonds. Not that we’re just playing good soccer, but we’re really good friends and everybody gets along really well. That makes the soccer that much better.”

By the program’s high standards, last fall’s D-I debut required an adjustment, with a pair of early losses begetting a long winning run to the state finals. Hanover — which saw a six-year run of D-II championships end in 2011 — ultimately fell one victory short of a championship plaque, but the returnees appear ready for another deep run next month.

The Marauders possess depth in scoring (a dozen players with at least one point), fronted by Hazlett, whose 36 career goals leave him tied with 1960s striker Elmer Maxfield and 1990s standout Mark Turco for fifth place in program history. Frankly, Hanover possesses depth all over the field, which should serve the Marauders well as they continue in D-I.

According to athletic director Mike Jackson, having petitioned to move up the NHIAA ladder, the Marauders are welcome to stay in D-I boys soccer until they decide they don’t want to belong. The results say that won’t happen anytime soon.

“It’s great for us,” Grabill said. “Our players are being developed into better players.”

Free Kicks: Hanover owned a 26-4 edge in shot attempts and a 6-1 advantage in corners. The Marauders have outscored the opposition 30-2 through eight starts. … Bynum’s only save came when Salem midfielder Jordon Bowman’s second-half free kick cleared its intended target and bounced into the netminder’s mitts.

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