NASHUA, NH – Eighteen days earlier, the Manchester Central High School boys soccer team hopped on the bus and made the 75.6-mile trek up Interstate-93 to I-89 to the New Hampshire-Vermont border.
There, the Little Green proceeded to become the only team this season to shut out Hanover High School, the top-ranked team in Division I and a squad that has produced 93 goals in 16 games.
That was 18 days earlier.
When the two teams reconnected on neutral turf at Nashua’s Stellos Stadium in the D-I semifinals Monday, it was the Bears (16-2) that controlled play, matching a first half goal with a second-half tally and keeping the Little Green (14-5) out of the net.
“We took notes,” said Hanover head coach Bill Grabill of his team’s previous encounter with the Little Green.
“We made mistakes and Central punished us for our mistakes,” he said. “They’re that smart and they’re that experienced, and that was on our turf where we don’t lose.”
But the Bears won when it mattered most, reversing the 2-0 score from the previous contest to advance back to the D-I championship game.
“We’ve been to the finals three years in a row, and there’s some unfinished business for us,” said Grabill of his team’s back-to-back second-place finishes to Nashua South in 2021 and ’22.
“We’ve got a senior-laden team, with 12 seniors, and we get leadership from guys like Zach Tracy –who scored his 23rd and 24th goals of the year – Ryder Hayes, who plays in front of our back-four but gets forward, an incredible two-way player,” he said. “Everybody knows their role. Everybody plays the same way, regardless of the score.”
That was certainly the case Monday as the Bears never took their collective foot off the gas against the Little Green this time around.
“We have so much respect for Central. What a great program,” said Grabill. “You know, this is the third time in five years we’ve played Central in the semis and this is the first time we’ve beat them in regulation. The other two were in penalties.”
While Hanover earned the right to face Bedford for the D-I crown on Friday at 5 p.m. back at Stellos Stadium, the Little Green will be able to reflect on a season full of successes.
Not only were they one of two teams (along with Bedford) to defeat top-seeded Bears this season, they earned 10 regular-season victories and two playoff triumphs, first edging rival Manchester Memorial on penalty kicks in the opening round last Tuesday, then taking care of business against upstart Exeter, 3-0, on Friday. They outscored opponents 40-21 this season, including playoffs.
“It was great to see a first-year head coach keeping the tradition (of winning at Central) alive,” said Grabill of CHS skipper Maid Ahmic. “He does a great job with his players and you can see how invested his players are with him. They deserved to be here.”
Ahmic acknowledged the reality of this season’s accomplishments but admitted he was having a difficult time appreciating those successes in the wake of the semifinal loss.
“Right now, it doesn’t feel like anything, but I’m proud of my guys,” he said. “I think they battled throughout the whole year and we improved a lot. That’s a really great team (in Hanover) and we tried our best. We just came up a little short.
“I think when I look back in a couple months, I’ll be like, ‘oh yeah, that was pretty good,'” he said, “but right now we have a bit of a bitter taste, you know?”
Saying farewell to Central’s seniors makes the pill that much more difficult to swallow, said Ahmic.
“These seniors were unbelievable for us and gave us the best year possible,” he said. “Martin (Lubunga), Sam (Mikus), Julian (Favorite), Isaac (DuPaul), Martino (Cuerto), look up and down the lineup and every single senior (also including Walter Cerna, Eriazard Tuyishime, Celestin Bulose and Ibrahim Alasbahi) gave me everything they could. They’re a really good group of kids and I love them to death.”
The influence from those leaders is sure to reverberate into next season and beyond, added Ahmic.
“The younger guys, like Amar (Kamaric), that saw the leadership of guys like Julian, Martin and Martino, he’s going to be able to carry that on next year. He’s only a sophomore, but he sees what good leaders do, so I think next year we’re going to be right there again,” Ahmic said. “We have a good young group and our kids work hard.”
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