Championship reflections: Lebanon boys soccer title worth the wait

  • Simon Amaro and Will McGee celebrate after winning the NHIAA Division II boys soccer championship game against Oyster River High School at Stellos Stadium in Nashua, N.H., on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. Lebanon won in a 4-3 penalty-kick tiebreaker after a scoreless draw. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • Lebanon fans cheer during the NHIAA Division II boys soccer championship game against Oyster River High School at Stellos Stadium in Nashua, N.H., on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. Lebanon won in a 4-3 penalty-kick tiebreaker after a scoreless draw. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news/ report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/3/2021 10:00:45 PM
Modified: 12/3/2021 10:00:12 PM

LEBANON — For Rob Johnstone, the sixth time was the charm.

In his 28th season as the head coach of the Lebanon High boys soccer team and his sixth appearance in a state final, Johnstone finally got to lift the trophy last month at Nashua’s Stellos Stadium. The Raiders won a thrilling 4-3 shootout following a scoreless draw against top-seeded Oyster River in the NHIAA Division II championship game for their first title since 1991.

Lebanon’s road was anything but smooth. Johnstone recognized the immense talent on his roster immediately, but his challenge was to utilize that talent in the optimal way. The Raiders defeated Hanover and Concord, two of the top teams in Division I, in preseason scrimmages.

“It was the second day of the preseason that we scrimmaged Hanover,” Johnstone said. “We had not played a single game all summer. That first scrimmage, I was like ‘Wow, this could be a special group.’ ”

The Raiders’ first goalscorer in that scrimmage had arrived in the United States only days prior. Krists Putans, an exchange student from Latvia, came to the team’s fitness test a mere 12 hours after landing, still battling jet lag. But the tall, lanky senior quickly became one of Lebanon’s best scoring threats, netting 17 goals and putting home the decisive penalty kick in the title game.

“I was practicing penalties, but I missed them some,” Putans said. “When it came to (the final), I was pretty confident in myself that I was going to score.”

The Raiders fell behind, 2-0, at halftime in their regular-season opener at Stevens before rallying to win in extra time on a Putans goal. From there, they ran off a string of blowouts — Lebanon led by five after just eight minutes against Manchester West and had a 5-0 lead at halftime against a solid Souhegan team.

But disaster struck in a 6-1 win at Pembroke on Sept. 21, when senior Colbie Delisle, the starting goalkeeper, broke his ankle. That left junior Easton Wykes, who had been the junior varsity goalkeeper the previous two years but began this season as the team manager, as the only goalie on the roster.

Johnstone considered shifting junior Will McGee or senior Griffin Auch to goalkeeper, but Wykes was adamant that he wanted the role. He had appeared in the team’s two previous games, but only after the Raiders got out to large leads.

“I don’t know if I’d say I was ready,” Wykes said. “It was really scary when Colbie got hurt, because I realized right then that I was probably going to have to be the goalie for the rest of the year for a really good team that I determined at the beginning of the year had a real chance of winning a state title.”

Lebanon suffered its first loss of the year to Oyster River in Wykes’ second start. But the Raiders returned to their winning ways after that, claiming seven of eight the rest of the way and earning the No. 3 seed in the postseason.

That seed gave Lebanon a first-round bye and a home quarterfinal matchup with Bow, a team the Raiders beat 4-0 just a week earlier. But this time, the Falcons took the early lead on a free kick from 55 yards away. Wykes, blinded by the setting sun, barely saw the ball as it went past him.

Lebanon equalized late in the first half when Putans set up sophomore Nick Brill, and that was the way it stayed through the second half and extra time. Before the shootout, Johnstone considered putting Putans in goal, thinking that his 6-foot-4 frame would be better suited to block penalties compared to Wykes. But Wykes wanted to stay in, and he saved three of Bow’s four attempts as the Raiders went through to the semifinals.

“After the second overtime ended, I was freaking out because I knew I had to face penalty kicks,” Wykes said. “I had done absolutely terrible in practice with penalty kicks. I stopped maybe one out of every 20. I told (Johnstone), ‘I’m gonna take it. If we win, we win; if we lose, we lose.’ ”

Lebanon blew out Kingswood, 4-0, in the semifinals to set up a rematch with Oyster River. This time, the Raiders’ defense was ready for the Bobcats’ high press and held Oyster River scoreless for 100 minutes, setting the stage for the dramatic shootout.

The Raiders scored a whopping 83 goals in 19 matches and allowed just 11. Senior Ryan Oliveira led the way with 20 goals and 16 assists, Putans had 13 assists to go along with his 17 goals and Brill scored 18 times.

Oliveira, Putans, senior Griffin Gamache and senior Daniel Mladek were named to the all-state first team, with Oliveira earning a spot on the all-New England team. Brill made the all-state second team.

Johnstone said he was thinking about the proverbial monkey on his back, but only as far as it came to preparing his team to at long last break through.

“Nobody was feeling sorry for Lebanon soccer. We’ve won a ton of games,” Johnstone said. “But for me as a coach, I’m a competitive person. Four times, we lost 1-0. We’d lost on penalty kicks. I was absolutely thinking about it, but in the sense of, ‘What can I do differently or better that might help us get that final win?’ ”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.




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