(Ed. Note: This story originally appeared in the Nov. 8, 2007 edition of The Forecaster)
WINDHAM—They were supposed to be here all along, but the Greely Rangers certainly didn’t make it easy.
The preseason favorites became the king of the Class A boys’ soccer world Monday night with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over the Brunswick Dragons at Windham High School, capping arguably the most grueling playoff run any champion has had to navigate.
Before slaying the Dragons, the best team that Eastern A had to offer, Greely had to beat three of the best teams in Western A: Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough and Gorham, squads which were the finest in the state regardless of class.
In the title tilt, senior Ryan Burnham’s goal in the 20th minute provided all the offense the Rangers would need and the Greely defense clamped down in the waning moments as the Rangers locked up their fifth Class A state championship (and seventh overall).
“It’s great,” said Rangers? junior Kevin Hart, who was enormous on the defensive side down the stretch. “It’s the best feeling. We had some bumps along the way, but in the end, we came together.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Greely coach Mike Andreasen added. “What was nice is that we came to play. I had a hunch we might. (The Dragons) were 17-0. They hadn’t been stretched to the limit. I figured it would be a 1-0 game. It was a nice goal. Each kid stepped up.”
Long and winding road
Several of the Rangers competed on the Coastal U-17 Premier team which stole headlines over the summer, falling just one win shy of qualifying for the national tournament.
Despite prognosticators calling Greely the team to beat this fall, it took that group awhile to get refocused on high school play.
“It was a year-long venture to get my Premier kids back into high school,” Andreasen said. “We looked bored sometimes. We knew coming in we were the best team from the shoulders down. From the head up was where we needed to learn to play together and learn to trust each other. That was the big thing.?”
The Rangers posted a more-than-respectable 10-3-1 mark during regular season play, considering they play the strongest teams in the state. Greely lost twice to eventual Class B state champion Falmouth and also fell to Yarmouth, while tying Cape Elizabeth. On the plus side, the Rangers beat the Capers and Clippers and also downed Freeport and North Yarmouth Academy.
The win over Yarmouth in the season finale produced the lineup that was to lead to a title run.
“I was actually playing kids in new positions in the Yarmouth game, our 14th game,” Andreasen said. “I didn’t get our lineup settled until Game 14. There was a lot of tweaking. When the playoffs came around, they put their game face on and they played hard.”
Greely earned the No. 5 seed for the playoffs and had to open with a home preliminary round contest against No. 12 Windham. The Rangers won 1-0 behind junior Steven Chase’s penalty kick goal.
Next was a quarterfinal round showdown at No. 4 Cape Elizabeth (the squad which shocked host Greely in the quarterfinal round of last year’s playoffs). This time around, the Rangers had no trouble, rolling to a surprisingly easy 3-0 win behind goals from Chase and seniors Dan Hawkins and Eric Thompson.
That set up a semifinal round showdown at top-ranked, unbeaten and two-time defending regional champion Scarborough. An early goal from Burnham appeared as if it would stand up, but the Red Storm was awarded a penalty kick late in regulation and converted to tie the score.
It would be the only goal Greely and standout senior goalkeeper Oliver Blum would allow all postseason.
The rivals played through 30 minutes of scoreless overtime, necessitating penalty kicks. Blum stopped one and influenced a miss on another, while all four Rangers kickers converted to allow Greely to move on by virtue of a 2-1 (4-1 PKs) victory.
In the regional final, the Rangers got the better of the play at No. 2 Gorham, but found themselves scoreless with 2:16 to play. Hart would step up huge, however, burying a long shot, to give Greely the 1-0 win and a berth in the state final.
Brunswick, meanwhile, had little trouble in Eastern A. The Dragons went 14-0 this year, outscoring their foes 66-7. After a non-countable 2-0 win over Bangor in the KVAC title game, Brunswick held off No. 8 Waterville (1-0), No. 5 Edward Little (1-0) and No. 3 Mt. Ararat (3-0) to win the regional crown.
Despite their respective storied histories (the Dragons had won 10 regional and six state titles), Brunswick and Greely had never before met in the state game. They did square off in the 1981 Western A quarterfinal round (a 1-0 win for the Dragons).
It didn’t take long Monday for the Rangers to suggest that they would control play.
Greely had possession in the Brunswick end from the get-go, but didn’t have a great scoring opportunity until collecting the game’s lone tally.
With 20:27 to go in the first half, senior Macgill Eldredge sent a perfect through-ball to a streaking Burnham in the box. As a pair of defenders closed in and Dragons sophomore goalkeeper Peter Morell raced out of the cage, Burnham managed to elude all three and bury the shot for a 1-0 lead.
“Ryan and I, we connect really well together,” Eldredge said. “We have this whole season. I saw him make his run and I kind of got lucky on the ball, but we’ll take it. I had faith in him. He’s really good finishing.”
“It was a good ball by Macgill,” Burnham said. “It landed right on my foot. I took a touch. I thought the goalie had it at first. I thought he got a hand on it, but I tapped it in.”
The Rangers had some chances to double their lead late in the half, but either the Brunswick defense or Morrell held them at bay.
The Dragons then came out a more determined and aggressive team in the second half.
“I think in the first half, we gave them too much respect,” Brunswick coach Peter Gardner said. “We stayed back and gave their midfielders some opportunities to get into space.”
Just 44 seconds into the stanza, Dragons senior Kyle Sullivan headed a shot just wide of Blum and the goal.
Greely then had a great opportunity to go up 2-0 in the 45th minute, but senior Sam Loren’s header off a corner kick hit the underside of the crossbar and landed just outside the goal line when it hit the ground.
Two minutes later, Chase sent a rocket just high.
Brunswick then returned to the attack as a rush by sophomore Martin Carillo was broken up by Rangers junior Alex Thomas. Moments later, Dragons junior Matt Peabody couldn’t quite get to a nice pass in the box. Brunswick then had a couple corner kicks that didn’t result in anything.
With 17:06 to play, Blum got to a loose ball just before Carillo. Less than a minute later, a seemingly dangerous through-ball off the foot of Dragons junior Jake Springer was broke up by Greely senior Brian Andrews.
With 10:01 left, Blum deftly handled a low shot by Brunswick sophomore Justin Rosner. That would be the Dragons’ last, best chance.
The Rangers almost iced it with 7:20 to go, when junior Sam Geoffroy fired a left-footed rocket which hit off the right post. Greely’s defense did the rest, with Hart making several timely clears, and time wound down on another championship.
“It was tough to hold on the whole second half,” Hart said. “The last 10 minutes seemed to take forever. Our goalie played great and our defense played great. The forwards helped out and we held on.”
“Our defense was great,” said Blum. “It’s a great defense to be behind. All I had to do was pick up loose balls. Not much came to me. Brunswick’s a very good team. They don’t play a schedule like we did. That might have been the difference. They matched up well.”
“Brunswick had about 10 minutes of pressure in the second half,” Andreasen added. “The defense was tall and Oliver was tall. He’s like (Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan) Papelbon. He’s money. I told him going into the playoffs if he didn’t give up a goal, I’d buy him dinner. My senior year (1979), we didn’t. I’m thanking Scarborough for saving me dinner.
“I feel really good. I feel like we weren’t fluky. We beat all the best teams. We were picked at the beginning. It reminded me a little bit of Florida in (college) basketball last year. They kind of stubbed their toe a little bit, but they had the team at the end and we did the same thing. I couldn’t be happier for the seniors. They committed. We had seniors who didn’t play much who could have started for other teams who were team players. They sacrificed their own games to be team players. I couldn’t say enough about them.”
Gardner had plenty of praise for the new champion.
“They’re an excellent team,” he said. “They’re well coached. They do some nice things out there. They do a good job moving the ball around.
“In the second half, we adjusted and put people up a little more and applied pressure. I think we played pretty even with them. We had some nice chances. We played a very good second half. They played a much better first half than we did.”
Greely’s previous titles came in 1974 and 1975 in Class B and in 1979, 1982, 1998 and 2004 in Class A. The last crown came when this year’s seniors were freshmen. That class was overjoyed to go out on top.
“I feel like a million bucks,” Burnham said. “It feels good to win it as a senior. We?re tight-knit.”
“It feels really nice,” Eldredge added. “It’s great. This is what we wanted from the beginning. I’m glad it’s over. It was a hard road to get here. We started off really well this season, then halfway through, we hit a wall and lost a couple games. We came together really well in playoffs. We came on strong.”
Following recent custom, the Rangers thrived by having to win games away from home.
“Our team got on the bus and got focused,” Blum said. “We have great seniors.”
“It’s much easier to focus when you’re traveling,” Eldredge added. “You have the whole bus ride. Everyone thinks about what their role is.”
Andreasen admitted that winning this championship wasn’t easy.
“We always seem to come out of the back as an eight seed or a five seed,” he said. “This team is tougher. The 1998 team snuck up on people. The ’04 team was good, but no one thought they were a championship team. This year, from Day 1, everyone picked us. Even coming into the playoffs, people were still expecting us to perform. It was hard. I thought we’d match up OK with everybody. We outplayed most, if not all of our opponents.”
The 2008 Rangers won’t have to deal with the pressure of expectations, but if anyone expects them to fade, they’ll be sorely mistaken.
“The junior class is a different group,” Andreasen said. “They’re very quiet. They’re solid. It’ll be different. Ollie was goofy. Ryan was quite verbal. Macgill was very verbal. It’ll be a different team. Chase, Hart, Geoffroy, Thomas and (Ross) Perry, they played big minutes in a game of this magnitude. It’s a nice starting point. We had some kids sitting on the bench as sophomores and juniors who are pretty darn good players.”
While Greely loses 14 seniors, the biggest hole next year will arguably be in goal, but Andreasen isn’t concerned.
“(Junior) Jake Downey was Ollie’s backup for two years,” he said. “(Sophomore) Mark McCauley was also brought up. He’s very athletic. Those two guys aren’t Ollie, but they are good players. They’ll have guys who have played a lot in front of them. The team next year has played together for quite a while. We’ll lose some of our team speed, but I don’t think our possession game will dip. Cape will be absolutely loaded. Scarborough as well. Next year, we’ll have to come out of the back again.”
Of course that’s next year. For now, Hart put everything in perspective.
“We’ll celebrate this now, then think about next year,” he said.
Greely senior Macgill Eldredge got the better of Brunswick sophomore Martin Carillo on this play Monday night in the teams‘ Class A boys‘ soccer state final showdown. Eldredge set up classmate Ryan Burnham for the game‘s lone goal as the Rangers won the Gold Ball, 1-0.