The biggest HS boys soccer game in the Upper Valley isn’t a game

  • Hanover High's Zach Tracy, right, battles Lebanon's Otto Bourne during the NHIAA teams' preseason scrimmage on Aug. 18, 2022, on Merriman-Branch Field in Hanover, N.H. Hanover won, 3-0. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Tris Wykes

  • Hanover High's Nick Reiss dribbles away from Lebanon's Riley Sullivan during the NHIAA teams' Aug. 18, 2022, preseason scrimmage at Merriman-Branch Field in Hanover, N.H. Reiss and the Bears won, 3-0. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to —Tris Wykes

  • Lebanon High boys varsity soccer coach Rob Johnstone makes a point about defensive positioning to senior Finn Ericson during the Raiders' 3-0 preseason scrimmage loss to Hanover on Aug. 18, 2022, at Merriman-Branch Field in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to —Tris Wykes

  • Ty Nolon —Tris Wykes

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/19/2022 9:23:39 PM
Modified: 8/19/2022 9:20:13 PM

HANOVER — The Upper Valley’s most anticipated boys soccer game each fall isn’t even a game.

It’s a preseason scrimmage between Hanover High and Lebanon, the region’s top two programs and ones so intermingled that their clash is more of a fierce friendly than a matchup with strangers.

The sides last saw each other Nov. 5 at Nashua’s Stellos Stadium where Lebanon won its first NHIAA Division II title in 30 years and Hanover dropped the Division I championship to Nashua South in penalty kicks.

“I think Hanover and Lebanon soccer have been leaders in defusing enmity between the two schools,” said Hanover coach Rob Grabill. “They can play hard and laugh afterwards and wish each other luck. Last season, there we were, watching each other under the lights in the last game of the season. Here we are tonight, starting another season.

“I love the arc of that, how it connects our programs.”

Hanover prevailed, 3-0, Thursday night on Merriman-Branch Field, scoring once when the sides’ first-string players were competing and twice more when the reserves were on the field.

Duncan Green, one of Lebanon’s central defenders, said his team held up well against the Bears’ straight-forward attack but struggled once they began moving the ball from side to side. The hosts’ second goal occurred on such a play, when Lebanon’s back line found itself stretched too wide.

Andrew McGuire ran through a gap and onto a beautiful diagonal chip pass before beating goalkeeper Zach Aldrich low and inside the right post. The tally put Hanover up, 2-0, early in the second half.

“We’ve also got to work offensively, possessing the ball and getting the ball up front,” Green said. “Whenever we watch tape, it’s the same thing. We always have more time with the ball than we think, so we have to possess and find the open man. Right now, too often we’re kicking it to nobody.”

Lebanon had only a handful of scoring chances, none of them truly threatening. It was a switch from last season, when the Raiders pinned a 2-0 defeat on their rivals, boosted by the sudden appearance of Latvian exchange student and top-notch striker Krists Putans, who scored both goals.

With Putans starting a postgraduate year at Kimball Union Academy and offensive midfielder Ryan Oliveira now a freshman playing at Ithaca (N.Y.) College, Lebanon’s attack is undergoing a reboot. Sophomore Nico Pentella steps in for Putans, alongside returning junior Nick Brill, and sophomore Otto Bourne slides into Oliveira’s spot.

“Playing Hanover is a hard night offensively and defensively, which is exactly why do it,” said Lebanon coach Rob Johnstone. “Hanover has a kid who can keep the ball at every position, so it demands our discipline every moment to be in the game.”

As previously agreed, the teams made wholesale changes midway through each half. That’s when the depth and skill in Hanover’s program became truly evident. The Bears feature four teams (varsity, JV, reserve, freshmen) and Lebanon’s second group isn’t cut from quite the same cloth as its rival’s.

The Bears went up, 1-0, a few minutes before halftime and off a Ben Woods corner kick. The perfectly placed offering descended at the top of the six-yard box and Sam Calderwood, one of several unmarked Bears, blasted a ferocious volley off the hand of goalkeeper Easton Wykes and under the crossbar.

When the whistle sounded for intermission, Johnstone’s first move was to pull his second-string group into a huddle and explain the tactics and fight needed to compete on restarts.

“It’s half a step and half a second, but that’s what make the difference, ultimately,” Johnstone said.

Hanover’s final goal was credited to Gavin Munson, who knocked the ball in after Aldrich dove sideways to stop a cross but couldn’t hold on to it once he slammed into the turf.

Johnstone said he believes this is Hanover’s best team in recent years, based partly off observations of various Bears while coaching at this summer’s Granite State Games and during last week’s local Touchline Soccer Camp.

“Ryder Hayes and Zach Tracy are really well-rounded, two-way players in the midfield,” Johnstone said. “The Guerin twins (Will and Carter) … you almost don’t want them to turn the ball over, because if they do, those dudes are coming at you. There’s not a split-second of hesitation, and they are working to win it back.”

Those four players are all juniors for a team that returns five starters and had a dozen newcomers make their varsity debut Thursday. Gone is state player of the year Eric Ringer, now an engineering student at the University of Colorado. As usual, however, the Bears have a wealth of talent waiting to shine.

“I think Ryder Hayes is not only the best player in the state, I think he’s the best player in New England,” Grabill said of the returning junior who often teams with Zach Tracy in the midfield. “The Guerins are so dangerous because they work really hard and they’re so technical and they want to go to the goal.

“Jack Gardner up top is a classic, three-sport athlete and a bull in a china shop, but he’s added dimensions to his game.”

Other players to mention include McGuire, back from an injury last year, and senior goalkeeper Ty Nolon, who broke his arm two months ago. The backstop is expected to return by Sept. 1, and Grabill said he’s still hopeful he’ll earn a chance to play Division I college soccer.

Hanover is widely seen as a title favorite this fall. Lebanon will need to coalesce and perhaps overachieve to have a real shot at consecutive championships. A spot on the back line remains up for grabs, and the Raiders must generate offense. Still, Grabill thinks the neighboring crowd should be watched.

“Don’t sleep on Lebanon,” Grabill warned. “They have a lot of guys who were good players last year but who are going to be top players this season. They’re always a tough out because of their organization and defense and coaching.”

Notes: Six Hanover and six Lebanon players competed for what was deemed the Monadnock Region team in this summer’s Granite State games. The squad, coached by Grabill and Johnstone, lost the title in penalty kicks. … Merriman-Branch Field’s electronic scoreboard is on its last legs, and athletic director Megan Sobel said a replacement would cost roughly $40,000. … Grabill said he’s switched to a plant-based diet and lost 40 pounds. … Hanover’s starting goalkeeper Thursday was Jackson McBride, recently returned from a summer spent playing club baseball in Georgia. … Lebanon returns four starters after graduating 11 seniors. Also gone are current senior Birhanu Harriman, who’s focusing on cross country, and classmate Will McGee, who gave up his final high school soccer and hockey seasons to play year-round club hockey with a team in Hooksett, N.H. … Hanover was 15-2-1 last season, while Lebanon was 15-2-2.

Tris Wykes can be reached at

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