TOWNSEND — When the Central Mass. Division 1 finals were played, Algonquin matched up against Leominster. Both teams play out of the rugged MidWach A League.
The North Middlesex boys soccer team’s goal in 2010 was to gain a post-season berth after a long absence. That goal was complicated by the league the Patriots play in, MidWach A. With 10 games against Algonquin, Leominster, Wachusett, Milford, and Shrewsbury, there is precious little margin for error to get the required points and to secure a District berth.
North Middlesex accomplished its goal with the help of a couple of early season surprises. With a strong senior class complemented by improving underclassmen, the Patriots finished the regular season with an 8-8-2 record before suffering a 2-1 loss at Algonquin in the opener of the tournament. But the season just may be the first step of a long journey, despite upcoming graduation that will claim the services of seven seniors who keyed the revival.
“We have been trying to get into the Districts for a number of years and we thought this would be the team to do it,” said veteran North Middlesex coach Pen Burnham. “Our season-opening win at Wachusett was huge and to open the season with a win over a good team on the road was important. The other win that proved most meaningful came at Leominster when we trailed 3-0 and came back to win 4-3.
“The kids’ willingness to work hard during the summer paid dividends,” said Burnham. “It gave me a good feeling entering the season that the kids had put the time in. When the season came around, they were in shape and ready to play and that was very important in our opening-season win against Wachusett.”
A trio of senior captains led the way for the Patriots — goaltender Scott Cavanaugh, striker Drew Dion and midfielder Matt Foley.
“Scott is the consummate player and is a coach’s dream,” said Burnham. “He practiced the way he played in games and he set the tone with his competitiveness. He never let us down, was able to come up with the big saves and he could steal a game. He worked hard with coach Kyle Fossey and was only off the field for 30 seconds all season. He will be sorely missed.
“Drew is a tough kid who works hard,” said Burnham. “He played through injuries and stayed on the field. He is determined, skilled and competitive. He led the team in scoring, but more importantly, was able to score against the best teams on our schedule, including Wachusett, Leominster, Algonquin and Milford. He scored big goals for us.
“Matt showed a lot of leadership and was involved in organizing things,” said Burnham. “He has great size and is strong in the air. His long throw-ins helped to change field position and created a lot of scoring opportunities.”
Four other seniors were vital with what they brought with them every day with their talent, work ethic and desire — outside midfielder Erik Clement, sweeper Justin Dellacanonica, midfielder Jon Nelson, and forward Chris Winton.
“Eric has good speed and he never stops working,” said Burnham. “He is fast and skilled and set up a lot of plays for us. He is another kid who played through injuries.
“Justin was Mr. Consistency at an important position for us,” said Burnham. “He used his experience to advantage and was the key to our defense. Justin is smart and was able to read what was going on. He was the vocal leader of the defense and he will be missed.
“Jon has the ability to shift into a gear that brings him to another level,” said Burnham. “He showed more maturity as a senior and played with a lot of heart. He is a high-intensity player who wants to succeed.
“Chris has great speed and is a goal scorer. He played with more maturity and decisiveness this season. He worked very well with Drew Dion and his departure leaves another big hole to fill.”
“The seniors were really good leaders who showed a lot of class and were good sportsmen,” said Burnham. “They provided an example for the younger players and set the tone. I am happy they were able to experience success and to get to play in the Districts.”
But with the seniors having completed their soccer careers, Burnham’s thoughts have already turned to next season and he feels the team will be propelled by another solid nucleus of players.
“Next year’s nucleus will start with a lot of versatility and will provide me with a number of options,” said Burnham. “It will give me a chance to juggle players around and to find out what the best lineup looks like.”
Returning next season at midfield will be Stephen Valacer, Al Dellacanonica, Dylan Kimbar and Wesley Thompson, all juniors.
“Stephen came off the bench this season,” said Burnham. “He has great ball skills and he sees the field very well. He is getting bigger and got a lot of playing time this season.
“Al plays at a college level and has the ability to make big plays,” said Burnham. “He is physical and vocal and became more of a leader as the season progressed. He plays with a controlled intensity and we are looking for a lot of leadership from him next season.
“Dylan has the versatility to play either midfield or defense,” said Burnham. “He has good size and is a physical player with a strong kick. He continues to mature and will be a very important player next season.
“Wesley is an outside midfielder with good skills and he just needs more aggressiveness and confidence,” said Burnham.
Back on defense next year will be Asa Okerman, Drew Donovan, Brian Bourgeois, Zach Miller and Matt Brown, all juniors.
“Asa has great ball skills and has the ability to mark the opposition’s strong offensive players,” said Burnham. “He was a part-time starter this year and he sees the field well and is good at getting the transition game going from his stopper position.
“Drew was a fullback this season and will be the sweeper next year,” said Burnham. “He is a quiet leader, makes big plays and makes very few mistakes. He played every minute this season, he has good offensive skills and when he is out there you don’t worry about his area.
“Brian was a part-time starter this season who has good size, is very aggressive and does a nice job of stepping up,” said Burnham. “Zach is a fast and versatile player who is capable of contributing defensively or at midfield. Matt played fullback and stopper this season. He is quick, has good foot skills and has come a long way.”
Returning up front will be sophomore Steve Julius, junior Argusto Scheid and junior Dom Ciccone.
“Steve has plenty of experience and had a productive season,” said Burnham. “He came off the bench this season but will start next year. He has good speed and learned to come back and help out this year.
“Argusto has a strong shot and great ball skills,” said Burnham. “He is working on his speed and is a work in progress.
“Dom is very talented and just needs to show more maturity,” said Burnham. “If that happens he will be an impact player for us.”
Cavanaugh’s departure leaves a gaping hole in goal.
“We have some prospects, but it will be an open competition,” said Burnham.
“Next year’s nucleus learned that every game is important and that every game that can be won needs to be won,” said Burnham. “They know the intensity that is required and the conditioning that is needed. Next year’s group may have better overall ball skills, but they will need to step up. I hope that this is the beginning of a run and I think the kids are ready. Getting a taste of the Districts should be beneficial.
“I had a great year with these kids,” said Burnham. “They practiced hard and are sharp, smart kids. I will always remember this team and I will always be indebted to them. I hope that years from now the kids on this team will look back and say they had a good time. There were a lot of great times this season and the games were exciting.”