Going into Saturday’s Division 2 championships, the Harwood Union High School boys soccer team had allowed only five goals all year.
This time, the Highlanders seemed to have an extra objective: Not allow their opponents to possess the ball at all.
Harwood capped its undefeated season Saturday with a 3-0 win over Woodstock during an autumn rainstorm that was only a few degrees too warm to be snow flurries. The game was played at South Burlington High School on artificial turf.
Will Lapointe scored one of Harwood’s goals and helped on another, and was just one of the Highlander players wrestling to keep their poise and fundamentals intact. Afterward, his teeth were audibly chattering as he did his best to participate in a post-game interview when all he wanted to do was change into something dry and get on the bus.
“I definitely think the weather always has an effect, especially when it’s absolutely freezing rain like this,” Lapointe chattered. “But it’s a huge mental game more than physical, because I knew that, just like every other game this year, if we just go out there and play our soccer, I think we can dominate.”
It was one of those days when a chant of “Warm up the bus! Warm up the bus!” from the winning team’s fans was more of a demand of the team driver than a taunt of the losing team.
During a game when the rain was coming down slanted and hard and about 38 degrees, the ball tended to behave oddly on the artificial turf, with audible squeaks as cleated shoes glanced off the slick sphere. At some points, the English the players put on the ball left the thing just spinning in place like a manic planet.
Contrast in styles
From the opening minutes of the game, you could see the different styles of play at work, as Harwood managed a crisp passing game despite the conditions. The methodical, patient play flummoxed Woodstock, which entered the game with at least as much vim and vigor as Harwood, but without the discipline.
Woodstock’s style of play was typified by Isaac Emery, the team’s scoring leader and a senior playing in his last game, and certainly playing like it was his last game. Emery was everywhere on the field, and if he was wearing a Fitbit, he probably ran a half-marathon.
According to a study on the tech website Gizmodo, the average soccer player, other than the goalie, runs 7 miles a game, with midfielders pushing around 9.5 miles. Emery was in so many different spots on the field, chasing down every.single.ball, that a casual observer might not know what position he played.
As a side note, according to the internet, in 80 minutes, roughly 24 trillion drops of rain fall on a square mile during a heavy rain. It was wet Saturday.
Harwood had plenty of good looks in the first half, but as the time wound down, it looked as if the teams would be scoreless at the break. A penalty shot by Wyatt Adams about midway through the first half looked good from the bleachers side, but the ball billowed the netting of the ball stop behind and left of the goal.
Then, in the 39th minute, Adams controlled a free kick and crossed it high and arcing across the face of the net, where Charlie Zschau headed it in.
Lapointe said afterward he thought the play was over after the free kick, which meant the half was all but over. And then the cross, and then the header.
“I was hoping to get the first goal as soon as possible,” Lapointe shivered. “It did take a long time, but I don’t think it would have necessarily put any negative stuff on us for halftime because we were already playing a really good attacking half and taking care of a lot of things offensively.”
As the players decamped to places of shelter for the halftime break — the Highlanders huddled in the South Burlington track equipment shed among the hurdles and high jump stanchions, the Woodstock Wasps on their bus, windows steamed from humid hair.
According to Harwood’s first-year coach Joe Yalicki, it’s one thing to score first. It’s another thing to hold that lead. It takes as much patience and discipline to play ahead as it does when you’re down. Yalicki said the team has showed that discipline and patience all year long, and Lapointe said it was “the hardest-working team I’ve ever been on.”
“I think the last few games have all been these little different stories. How can play under these circumstances?” Yalicki said. “And in this case, you had to be able to play with a lead.”
Pounding the net
If Zschau’s goal took some of the wind out of Woodstock’s sails, that wind was at Harwood’s back for the second half, as the Wasps squinted through the slanting rain and the coaches on the sideline struggled to keep their canopy tents from blowing away.
Harwood had outshot Woodstock 13-1 in the first half, and the second half was 9-1 in Harwood’s favor.
Zschau struck again four minutes into the second half, as he and Lapointe burned the defense and had a two-on-one against Woodstock goalie Stephen Bianchi. Lapointe to Zschau to the back of the net.
Bianchi had a sizably harder day in goal than Harwood’s Max Hill, who had two easy saves to Bianchi’s nine hard ones. Plus, Bianchi had to watch an additional 13 shots go wide.
Lapointe put the capper on the scoreboard with 25 minutes left on the clock, with a head off a cross from Jesse McDougal in front of the net.
From there, Harwood just shut down the middle of the field, closing off all of Woodstock’s passing lanes. Still, Isaac Emery cut and sprinted and hopped up and down like a flea until he went down with what looked like a hamstring pull.
Woodstock ended the year 11-4-1.
With a 10-0-1 regular season record, the only thing that stopped Harwood from a perfect record was a late-season 1-1 tie with Stowe, which was chasing its seventh consecutive state title — but in Division 3, not Harwood’s Division 2.
Harwood hadn’t let any opponents score for the four games before that Stowe matchup, and didn’t allow any the rest of the year.
Coach Yalicki was a sophomore on the last Harwood boys soccer team that won a state title, in 2007. Is this year’s team the best Harwood soccer team of all time? Yalicki waited a full nine seconds before answering.
“Yes,” he said, finally. “The style that this team plays is so much more effective. We had a lot of great players, but the way these guys play is something special.”