Yarmouth senior captains Walter Conrad (63) and Patrick Grant show off the Clippers’ Gold Ball following Saturday’s 3-0 win over Erskine Academy in the Class B state final.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
PORTLAND—Yarmouth’s boys’ soccer team ended up right where everyone expected, atop the Class B world for the second year in a row, but what a long, challenging and ultimately rewarding journey it was.
The Clippers entered the season as overwhelming favorites to repeat, but injuries compromised the roster and even made the juggernaut somewhat vulnerable, but Yarmouth took the life lessons it learned, grew stronger as a result and Saturday evening at Fitzpatrick Stadium, earned its rightful coronation.
Facing Cinderella story Erskine Academy, three days after surviving an epic double-overtime scare at Maranacook in the regional final, the Clippers came out sizzling and after some near misses, produced a goal that a Hollywood producer would dismiss out of hand, when senior captain Walter Conrad, who missed almost the whole season with a broken ankle, tipped home a feed from junior Matt Dostie in the 29th minute.
While experience led to the only goal Yarmouth would need, the Clippers’ second tally came off the left foot of a future star, one who has already etched his name in program lore, freshman Eric LaBrie.
LaBrie, who scored the goal which allowed Yarmouth to get out of Readfield Wednesday night with its championship dreams still intact, dribbled through the Erskine Academy defense and scored with his left foot 4:33 before halftime and the Clippers had a 2-0 lead at halftime.
Any coach will tell you that’s the worst lead to have, so Yarmouth went out looking for the clincher and with 28:53 remaining, junior Topher Pidden sent a perfect cross on to the foot of senior Nick Kamra and Kamra finished for a three-goal lead.
That allowed Clippers coach Mike Hagerty to substitute liberally as time wound down and it wasn’t long until Yarmouth got to celebrate a 3-0 victory.
Yarmouth finished the season 16-1-1, won its second consecutive championship and the program’s 10th overall and it ended the Eagles’ campaign at 14-5 in the process.
“It was a terrific night,” said Hagerty, who now has seven titles with the program. “Erskine has a bunch class of kids. We knew we’d be in for a good, clean game. It really was an interesting year. Bittersweet at times. The focus for these guys has always been to be great teammates first. They were able to step in and do what they had to do.”
One team came into the state final highly touted with a dazzling pedigree while the other was a Cinderella, making its first appearance on the biggest stage.
Erskine Academy went 10-4 in the regular season, but only earned the 10th seed in Class B North.
The Eagles upset No. 7 Mt. Desert Island (3-0) in the preliminary round, second-ranked Winslow on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, third-seeded Presque Isle on PKs in the semifinals and top-ranked Ellsworth, the defending regional champion, 2-1, in the Class B North Final Wednesday to move on.
Yarmouth, meanwhile, wasn’t just the defending state champion, it was the odds-on favorite to repeat when the season commenced, but there were storm clouds ahead.
Prior to the start of the regular season, Conrad broke his ankle and senior midfielder Noah Pellerin was seriously hurt when he fell off a moving car, ending his year.
If that wasn’t enough, the Clippers lost three players, juniors Gibson Harnett and John Lane and senior standout Jon Groothoff, for the remainder of the season to knee injuries in a win over Falmouth.
Yarmouth did drop a game at eventual Class C runner-up Waynflete and tied visiting Greely late in the year, but was perfect otherwise.
As the second-ranked team in Class B South, the Clippers ousted seventh-ranked Cape Elizabeth (2-0) in the quarterfinals and beat No. 3 Greely, 3-1, in the semifinals.
That sent the Clippers to top-ranked Maranacook, the two-time Class C state champion, which had moved up this fall, for what proved to be an epic regional final Wednesday night.
Yarmouth took an early 1-0 lead on a header from senior Conor O’Donnell, but couldn’t add to the lead and the Black Bears tied the score early in the second half, then went ahead on a penalty kick. With their season slipping away, the Clippers rallied to tie on a header from Dostie, then, in the second overtime, Yarmouth survived, as LaBrie scored one of the biggest goals in program history and the Clippers, prevailed, 3-2.
“We woke up and pressed and outworked them,” Hagerty said. “I have to give (assistant coach and former program standout) Eoin (Lynch) credit. He suggested we go to a 4-4-2 (formation) to have two forwards playing together. It was a beautiful goal to tie it up, then (sophomore) Luke (Groothoff) sent the through ball to Eric and he chipped the ball over the goalie’s head into the side netting.
“It was an unbelievable atmosphere up there. Crazy. It was certainly one of my top five finishes ever. The kids were amazing. They played with serious grit.”
Yarmouth and Erskine Academy had never played in a state game, but had met four times previously in the playoffs. The Eagles lone victory came in the 1978 Western B semifinals (5-0). The Clippers won in the 1974 Western B semifinals (4-1), the 1983 Western C preliminary round (2-0) and the 1997 Western B quarterfinals (4-0), Hagerty’s first playoff game with the program.
Saturday, Yarmouth ensured the clock struck midnight for Erskine as the Clippers cemented their status once and for all as the cream of the Class B crop.
In just the second minute, Groothoff sent a long free kick on target, but Eagles senior goalkeeper Denver Cullivan made the save.
After Dostie headed a ball wide and Groothoff sent a blast high, Conrad almost got the Clippers on the board in the 10th minute, but sent a shot just wide.
Yarmouth kept pushing and junior Henry Coolidge (shot, save), Groothoff (corner kick, punched out by Cullivan), Groothoff again (header, save) and senior Patrick Grant (shot, high) all had looks to no avail.
Erskine Academy then almost took the lead on a fluky bounce in the 20th minute, but a Clippers defender saved the day.
Off a long free kick by Eagles senior Hoang Barnett, the ball bounced in the box and with Yarmouth sophomore goalkeeper Cal Owen coming out to play the ball, senior Luke Peabody flicked the ball toward the open goal. Thankfully for the Clippers, senior back Andrew Beatty was there to knee the ball out of harm’s way to keep the game scoreless.
“It came in and I saw it curl away from me,” Beatty said. “I thought someone might head it back across, so I covered the back post. It got through our defensive line and took a bounce in the box. I saw the ball coming straight at me with Cal on the ground. It took an awkward bounce. I was going to try to head it out, but it was straight at me, so I just kneed it out. We take a lot of pride in our defense. Coach says defense is a thing of pride. He works with us every practice and we do different drills that force us to focus as a unit, talking with our goalie and the midfield.”
“The great thing about having senior defenders is they have so much experience and they have a great feel for the game,” Hagerty said. “It’s taken them all year to work out that karma with Cal. In the playoffs, it’s felt like they were in a good rhythm. Andrew and (senior) Matt (Beatty) and Conor have been underrated and spectacular all year because of the little things they do. They switched on and off today on (Peabody) all night without saying a word.”
In the 26th minute, LaBrie just missed putting Yarmouth on top, when, after a great move, he shot just wide.
Conrad followed with a shot that just missed, Dostie had a shot blocked and Coolidge shot wide.
Then, with 11:02 to play before halftime (cue the inspirational music), Conrad sent his teammates and the large Clippers cheering contingent into ecstasy with his first goal of the season.
At the most optimal time.
Dostie played the ball in from the left side, it bounced off a defender toward Cullivan, but before the keeper could reach it, Conrad pounced, poked at the ball with his right foot and sent it into the goal for a 1-0 lead.
“(The ball) bounced around and I just found myself in the right place at the right time,” Conrad said. “It was very exciting. I think that got us going. We knew we had to strike first. We knew they’d be dangerous if they got momentum. Once we scored, we connected passes and got the ball in the net.”
Talk about returning in style.
“It just feels so good to be with all the guys because they’ve been filling roles this whole season, really stepping up,” Conrad said. “(When I got hurt, it) really was a turning point moment for me. I realized there was a chance I might not play the whole season. I had to believe from that moment that I could make it back. If I didn’t believe and work as hard as I could, there was a chance I wouldn’t see the field all season. That pushed me the whole year. I hoped I’d get my shot.”
To say Conrad’s teammates and coaches were thrilled would be an epic understatement.
“That was absolutely amazing, seeing him come back from breaking his ankle then scoring in the final game of the season as a senior,” LaBrie said.
“I was not expecting Walter to score,” Kamra said. “That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m so glad Walter could show everyone how he could play. I feel like most people weren’t able to see how good he is.”
“The whole team knew Walter was starting and that gave us a boost,” Hagerty added. “When the crowd heard he was starting, they gave him a cheer. To have him score the game-winning goal in the state final, with his healed right foot, it couldn’t have gone better.”
Yarmouth wasn’t content to sit on its lead and with 4:33 to play before halftime, LaBrie gave his team some breathing room.
LaBrie, the younger brother of program legend Adam LaBrie, who is now starring at Thomas College in Waterville, got the ball on the right side, weaved through four defenders, then unleashed a left-footed rocket that beat Cullivan top side, just inside the far post for a 2-0 advantage.
And with that goal, the freshman managed to one-up his brother, who never scored in a state final.
“It felt great,” LaBrie said. “I was a little bit nervous, but I tried to get confident coming in to the game. I dribbled through a couple people and shot it and it went in the net.”
“How wild is that?” Hagerty said. “To have two goals in two games after scoring just one in the regular season, he’s peaking at the right time. He had great form. I had a feeling if we got Eric and (sophomore) Tahj (Garvey) up top with their speed, they might make a team uncomfortable and open up the midfield. They did such a nice job.”
The Eagles almost answered a minute later, but O’Donnell, standing in the goal mouth, managed to head the ball away after it ricocheted on target.
In the first half, Yarmouth ousthot Erskine Academy, 20-4 (6-3 on frame), but the crown hadn’t quite been secured.
That would change in the 12th minute of the second half.
After a Groothoff blast on a free kick was saved by a diving Cullivan, Dostie and Conrad had shots go just wide and Grant, after weaving through three defenders, had a promising shot blocked, Pidden got the ball on the ride side, crossed it through the box and Kamra ran on to the ball and one-timed a shot through Cullivan to make it 3-0 with 28:33 to play.
“It was a lot of fun to score it, but I feel like I did it for my team, not myself,” Kamra said. “As long as we scored a third goal, that’s all that mattered.”
“Coach always says the third goal is the most important goal and we got that goal,” LaBrie said.
“That was a great ball by Topher,” Hagerty added. “That clinched it. Game over. That allowed us to get everyone in. ‘Karma’ had kind of a nervous game up to that point. He’s had a spectacular year. As much as Luke and Henry calm the game down for us in the midfield, he did that for us in the back. He can take a touch and not panic. He told me yesterday he thought he’d have a good game. For him to get a goal tonight was quite justified.”
Down the stretch, as Hagerty gradually replaced players, Yarmouth had chances to add to its lead, but Cullivan punched away a header by senior Nate Gallagher, Cullivan had to dive to deny Groothoff again, Grant had a shot saved, then shot high.
With the field full of seniors, at 7:30 p.m., the Clippers finally capped their championship journey with a 3-0 victory and bedlam broke loose.
“I remember the feeling last year was unbelievable and to come back this year, we were even more determined since some of these kids have been together since first grade,” Andrew Beatty said. “We knew this was going to be the last game of our high school career and talked before the game about playing for each other and playing for the kids who couldn’t play. It’s an unreal feeling to come out with the win.”
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” Kamra said. “Last year, I don’t know if I had the same feeling. Our whole team is just ecstatic about this. I couldn’t have been part of a better program. I used to go to Messalonskee. The team atmosphere wasn’t the same. We’re a family.”
“It’s a really, really good feeling,” Conrad said. “Some of us have been together for 10 years playing soccer. We never go into a game with a mentality that we have a really good shot. We know anything can happen in a playoff game. We came in pretty ready, but we didn’t know we’d win.”
“It was terrific that we were able to get everyone in the game,” Hagerty added. “It was a really nice, calm ending to a very tumultuous season. We felt like the teams we had played had more depth than whatever (North) team we’d match up with. We had to beat Cape, Greely, then Maranacook away to get to states. The kids were relieved to get back on turf. The seniors have been great all year in maintaining focus. After Maranacook, I congratulated Matt Beatty, but he said, ‘We have one more, Coach.’ The focus was there.”
Yarmouth fired 39 shots (13 on frame) to just six for Erskine Academy (four on frame). The Clippers had an 8-2 advantage in corner kicks and got three saves from Owen and one from senior Noah Grondin. Cullivan made 10 saves for the Eagles.
There were numerous times this fall when the Clippers’ dreams could have been derailed, but this group kept its eye on the prize and was rewarded.
“Every day, we saw kids come to practice who couldn’t play,” Andrew Beatty said. “I was hurt my whole junior year lacrosse season, so I knew what it was like to be injured. I know it hard it is, not being able to help the team. That pushed us, because we knew those guys would give anything to be on the field.”
“The senior leadership was just unbelievable,” Conrad said. “We served as role models for the guys. Even when guys went down, other seniors kept guys in line. It was cool to see that.”
Hagerty couldn’t rave enough about his 13-man senior class following the game.
“This is a pretty special group, led by a special group of seniors, led by Patrick and Walter, who are the finest captains you could ask for,” Hagerty said. “The seniors love each other. All they want to do is play. We literally had to turn lights out at practice. Matt Beatty and I were looking for a ball after a game and he told me, ‘I just want to play with my buddies.’ That line sums up this whole senior class. We’ve had some special senior groups, but they’re as close of a senior group as I’ve ever seen.
“The parents are an amazing group. They get it. They know soccer is a part of education, not more important than. They helped keep things in perspective. They rallied around the kids who were hurt. They allowed us to keep moving on. A lot of credit goes to the community. How the kids handled it mirrored how their families handled it.”
Conrad and his classmates won’t soon forget their time in a Yarmouth uniform.
“There’s really no way to describe just how good it feels to put on a Yarmouth soccer jersey,” Conrad said. “It’s something that sticks with you the rest of your life. I get texts all the time from guys who graduated and they say, ‘I’d do anything to get back on the field.’ I’m just so thankful that we’ve all been given that shot.”
Yarmouth has won 10 titles and has gone back-to-back twice (2004-05 was the other), but one thing this storied program has yet to do is three-peat.
While there will be many holes to fill, an abundance of talent returns and it’s likely the Clippers will be the favorites once again in 2016.
“We’re losing a lot of key seniors, but I think we have a pretty good chance next year,” LaBrie said.
“The opportunity is there,” Hagerty said. “That would be nice history. We have returning kids who will play bigger roles and we have a fabulous JV team and they’ll be ready to step up. It’s a like a football team that has the right skill positions and you have to fill in the others. I’m excited for the kids. The younger kids have seen how the seniors have done it. The extra time in the weight room, the extra time in practice. Being the first ones in and the last ones to leave. The things the coaches want to see, the senior class has shown the freshmen. We have some great reminders. The returning guys have a great path to follow. I don’t just think we’ll be good, I think we’ll be great again.”
It came out of a Hollywood script. Yarmouth senior Walter Conrad, who missed almost the entire season with an ankle injury before returning for the playoffs, pokes the ball past Erskine Academy senior goalkeeper Denver Cullivan for the game’s first goal in the first half.
Conrad is mobbed by his teammates after putting the Clippers on top to stay.
Erskine Academy senior goalkeeper Denver Cullivan punches the ball away Yarmouth freshman Eric LaBrie
LaBrie did strike later in the first half and is congratulated by senior Andrew Beatty after giving Yarmouth a 2-0 lead.
Yarmouth junior Matt Dostie plays the ball down the sideline.
Yarmouth sophomore goalkeeper Cal Owen beats Erskine Academy junior Andrew Browne to the ball.
Yarmouth sophomore Luke Groothoff heads the ball.
Yarmouth junior Henry Coolidge plays the ball as Erskine Academy senior Hoang Barnett looks on.
Yarmouth senior captain Patrick Grant celebrates the win with the fans.
Yarmouth 1 Ellsworth 0
Yarmouth 5 Ellsworth 0
Yarmouth 1 Presque Isle 0
Yarmouth 3 Presque Isle 0
Yarmouth 1 Ellsworth 0
Yarmouth 2 MCI 1
Camden-Rockport 2 Yarmouth 1
Yarmouth 2 Ellsworth 2 (tie)
Yarmouth 2 Piscataquis 1
Yarmouth 3 Van Buren 1