Raiders Get a Jump Start
Set Plays Continue to Seed Lebanon Boys Soccer Success
Lebanon's Martin Gradijan, left, races to the ball after it was headed by Stevens' Ryan Napsey, center, as Aidain Mattice looks on during their match in Lebanon on Monday, September 23, 2013. Lebanon won the game 3-0. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
Lebanon's Will Merchant leaps above Stevens' Aidain Mattice to head the ball during their match in Lebanon on Monday, September 23, 2013. Merchant had one assist and one goal in their 3-0 win. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
Lebanon — Much ink has been spilled, many fingernails noshed, many vocal chords strained through 100-plus years of soccer (more in England than the colonies) about ensuring the hands never decide the fate of a match. Yet Will Merchant’s two paws were very much responsible for pushing the Lebanon High boys toward an eventual 3-0 NHIAA win over Stevens on a chilly Monday afternoon.
If the ball’s across midfield and over the sidelines, it soon finds Merchant’s mitts. The Raider junior can launch it a long way, and if all goes well, a Lebanon teammate nods the service home. That’s how the home team got its lead, one to which Merchant later added with a goal of more conventional means.
“Reliably, I can throw from half-field to the corner of the 6-yard box,” said Merchant after handing the Cardinals their first loss of the season. “I’ve just been taking throw-ins for my entire life. I don’t know how I’ve gotten good at it.”
Throw-ins and corner kicks come under the soccer department of set plays; they are the game’s most reliable sources of offense. Lebanon (5-1) turned just one such opportunity into a goal last season. The Raiders converted three similar chances on Monday, and their last seven strikes over two matches have come on restarts.
Martin Gradijan nodded home Merchant’s long throw in the 11th minute for a 1-0 lead. Merchant and Tate Singleton converted corner-fed headers 4½ minutes apart in the second half to clinch a dominant victory.
“It’s just a weapon,” Lebanon coach Rob Johnstone explained. “It’s obviously a bonus to throw it all the way into the middle of the goal. … I guess the analogy would be to a pitcher in the majors. It doesn’t matter if you can throw it 95 (miles per hour); it’s location, location, location.”
Famed English playmaker Bill Shakespeare might have termed Lebanon’s long-tosser the Merchant of menace.
The moments calling for the junior’s employment come innocently enough: a misfired pass or challenged ball rolls across the touchline, possession to the Raiders. Regardless of his position on the field before the throw-in, Merchant trots to the point to take it.
He’ll go back as far as the field permits, then take a few strides before leaning back, snapping at the waist as the ball rotates out of his hands toward the enemy box. What happens after that is up to the intended target.
“Pretty much anywhere when it’s at the bottom half of the (midfield) circle is where he wants me to take it,” Merchant said. “Sometimes I push a little farther back.”
The intent: “Pretty much anywhere in the box that my team can get it in the net,” the defender added, “that works.”
It certainly did at 10:13. Merchant’s long throw from in front of the Stevens bench found the head of Gradijan, who flicked the service into the upper left corner, well out of the range of Cardinal goalkeeper Austin Putnam.
“He has two specific targets (Gradijan or sophomore Austin Whaley); can you get it there on a line?” Johnstone asked. “If he can, it just creates havoc.”
That it didn’t happen again could be chalked up to ill fate. Merchant heaved the sphere on throws in the 22nd, 25th, 37th and 40th minutes of the first half, all of which turned into quality chances that either the Raiders missed or Putnam (10 saves) turned aside.
“We just looked like we were scared to make a mistake,” said Stevens coach Jason Stone, a six-year Johnstone assistant in his second season with his alma mater. “And when they have the ball, they’re good with it. They’re fast with it. I know everything they do; we went over all their restarts, their corners, everything. But they’re good enough at it that even if you know what they’re doing, they still can be successful doing it.”
An influx of sophomore talent is giving Johnstone optimism that last year — when Lebanon won 10 matches despite scoring just 17 goals — has given way to more frequent scoring, particularly on set pieces.
One of those sophs, forward Kuda Muhlauri, put a 54th-minute corner from the right wing onto Merchant’s noggin tight to the near post for a 2-0 advantage. Just a few minutes later, a Gradijan corner turned into sophomore head-ball ping-pong, Singleton foreheading the feed to Nathan Gradijan and scoring on the return header across the face of Putnam’s goal.
Merchant’s missiles could easily have added to the haul. Putnam made a juggling save on a Whaley header six minutes into the second half when Merchant found his target hovering by the right post.
“Two years ago, we scored 66 goals … and one of the things about that team was we scored 20 goals on restarts,” Johnston said. “Winning is contagious, but scoring goals is contagious.”
Stevens (5-1) has learned that lesson in bunches. Although limited to six shots on goal in eight attempts by a stout Lebanon defense, the Division III Cardinals entered with 30 scores to their credit already this campaign. Enjoying its best start in 20 years — and perhaps longer — Stevens won’t face another D-II opponent the rest of the year.
“Our start to the season is what this program needed,” Stone said.
It’s the restart on Monday that threw Stevens for a loop.
Free Kicks: Goalies Kenny Weitzman and Miguel Hernandez combined on a six-save shutout. Weitzman’s five denials over 66 minutes included a save on an Ethan Sweet penalty kick at the 55:25 mark. … The Cards lost starting center back Josh Strobel to an apparent back injury shortly before half time. A senior, Strobel was clipped by Lebanon’s Whaley on a clearance attempt, landing awkwardly in his own penalty area. … The Raiders are home to Trinity on Wednesday. The Cardinals return to action on Wednesday night with a 7 p.m. date against rival Fall Mountain at Monadnock Park.
Greg Fennell can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.