Central survives Memorial scare, advances on PKs

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Sam O'Toole makes a diving save.
Central keeper Sam O’Toole makes one of three PK saves to help the Little Green secure the first-round victory Tuesday night. Stacy Harrison photo

MANCHESTER, NH – Manchester Central High School’s first-year varsity boys soccer coach admitted he may have had a brief moment of trepedation when he first looked at the playoff schedule.

“If I could pick, I wouldn’t pick (Manchester) Memorial to play in the first round,” said Maid Ahmic. “They’re a dangerous team. Their record this year (4-9-4) is deceiving. They’re a good team and they’re a hard matchup for us.”

The 13th-ranked Crusaders proved to be as dangerous as advertised, holding Central to a scoreless draw through 100 minutes of gameplay Tuesday night before hundreds of rabid fans at Manchester’s Gill Stadium.

“We knew it was going to be close,” said Ahmic. “Memorial is a tough matchup for us every single time. You know, we’re cross-town rivals, so we knew it was going to be tough. It was tough earlier in the year when we went to double overtime (with the Crusaders) and it was tough today going to PKs.”

Indeed, the Queen City foes trades opportunities throughout both 40-minute regulation halves and a pair of 10-minute overtimes, with Central (13-4) controlling possession for the majority of the final 60 minutes, but it wasn’t until the teams went to a penalty-kick shootout that the Little Green were able to separate, winning 3-0 on PKs.

“It stings because it was a good game,” said Memorial head coach Jerold White. “Obviously, the PK thing is a crazy one, but it is what it is, right? Obviously it went back-and-forth, got a lot of opportunities to get where we needed to be, just weren’t able to place it, so unfortunately somebody had to win and it wasn’t us.”

Central senior captains Julian Favorite and Martin Lubunga, first and second up for Central in PKs, each made their respective shots and, after sophomore goalie Samuel O’Toole stopped two Memorial shots and watched a third sail safely over the goal, Central defender Walter Cerna stepped to the spot and elevated his shot, redirecting the ball off the inside of the crossbar and into the back of the net to seal the victory.

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Central players rush toward cheering parents, students and fans following Walter Cerna’s decisive penalty-kick goal found the back of the net. Cindy Lavigne/Lavigne’s Live Shots

While Memorial did a notable job clogging Central’s passing lanes and disrupting the Little Green’s ability to get a clean shot off throughout the contest, Ahmic credited his own defense, and especially O’Toole, for adjusting mid-game to Memorial’s offensive tactics and attacking the ball whenever it was brought into the box.

Though the contest may have put a little more strain on Ahmic’s heart than he would have liked, he admitted the competitive nature of the match likely better prepared his players for what’s to come as the Little Green look to advance deep into the D-I tournament.

“We want the tough games, we don’t want the easy games,” said Ahmic. “You know, we learned a lot from today and we built our confidence here.”

The Little Green now advance to play No. 13-ranked Exeter (8-8-1), which upset fifth-seed Londonderry, 3-2, Tuesday.

The quarterfinal contest is tentatively scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday at Gill.

“We’re ready,” said Lubunga. “I don’t care who (we play), my team is ready.”

Central squeaked out a 2-1 home victory against Exeter on Sept. 12, and Ahmic said he and his players won’t take the Blue Hawks lightly.

“This year is like that, everybody can go beat anybody,” said Ahmic. “They’re going to be a tough team. In the second half, when we played them earlier this year, I thought they outplayed us, so we’re going to have to get back to work here and get ready for a really good team.”

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About this Author

Ryan O'Connor

As a longtime journalist in Southern New Hampshire, Ryan O'Connor has written for several local online and print publications covering everything from school board meetings and local high school sporting events to major crime stories and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary (yes, the last two are mutually exclusive). In addition to spending time with his beautiful wife and four amazing children, Ryan enjoys attending and serving at church, golfing as much as possible, home brewing, playing softball and snowboarding when time allows.