With the fall sports season coming down the home stretch, here’s a look back at the last few months through the lenses of photographer Gary Fournier.
WALPOLE — There’s that old saying in sports: It’s not how you start, buy how you finish.
Neither of those things went the way of the Oakmont Regional boys soccer team Tuesday night.
A rough start saw the top-seeded Spartans fall behind almost instantly and their struggles to finish at the other end proved too much to overcome as Oakmont fell, 2-1, to No. 4 Pembroke in a Division 3 semifinal at Walpole High School.
The Titans (18-2-1) will face Norwell in Saturday’s final, with a time and venue to be announced. The third-seeded Clippers ended the Cinderella run of No. 26 Dighton-Rehoboth by a 2-0 score Tuesday afternoon.
The season ends with a 20-3-0 mark for the Spartans, who won the Central Mass. Athletic Directors Association Class B title and picked up three postseason victories before running out of gas.
The semifinal proceedings couldn’t have possibly gotten off to a worse start for the Spartans than what occurred Tuesday.
After goalkeeper Ben Forbes turned aside a long, high drive into the box just seconds after kickoff, the rebound sprung free and the Spartans were unable to clear. Pembroke junior Colin Blake alertly raced to the bounding ball and nodded it into the net for a 1-0 lead in the opening minute.
The Titans added some insurance with 23 minutes remaining as Matt McAuliffe headed home a corner kick to double the advantage after controlling much of the game’s play.
The Spartans eventually broke through in the game’s final minutes as Gael Vera capped his high school career by heading a free kick past Titans goalie Jack Eva (three saves) to cut the lead in half.
Oakmont struggled to string passes together at midfield as the Titans packed the center of the pitch all night and denied easy entry into the attacking third.
The Spartans had their best chances to dent the net early, with Reyad Magdoul heading a ball just wide of the net in the 14th minute and Oakmont getting looks off back-to-back corner kicks midway through the opening half.
With a two-goal lead and the Spartans pressing, the offense opened up for the Titans and the game’s outcome would have been more lopsided if it weren’t for the efforts of Forbes. The senior made seven of his 10 stops in the second half, often in spectacular fashion.
He denied Blake on a point-blank shot in the 60th minute and made a sprawling save on Shane Crowley four minutes later as the Pembroke junior broke in alone.
Forbes also benefitted from a bit of luck, as a drive by Gabe Lamar rang off the iron with 10 minutes left, keeping the deficit at two.
Looking at the numbers, it would be easy to write off the Oakmont Regional boys soccer team as a one-trick pony.
Yes, Gael Vera is an outstanding player, capable of carving up defenses and finding the back of the net from virtually anywhere on the pitch. Yes, the senior forward has done the bulk of the scoring for the Spartans this fall, putting up 36 goals to this point and well over 100 for his high school career.
But as the Spartans go deeper in the postseason and defenses sharpen their focus on locking down Vera, does having such a dynamic scorer hinder Oakmont’s chances of advancing?
To this point, the answer has been a resounding no.
Both Auburn and Holliston kept at least one defender on Vera at all times in their playoff contests against Oakmont and the Spartans haven’t struggled. It might take them a bit longer than usual to find their offensive footing, but playoff soccer isn’t often a showcase of high-scoring contests.
In the two postseason games to this point, the Spartans hold a 5-1 edge in scoring. And Vera, despite facing constant attention from the opposition, has three goals and adapted his game to be a facilitator when entire defenses shift his way.
Look no further than Thursday night’s win over Holliston. Facing constant double teams, Vera still found ways to slither through the defense and showed his prowess as a passer, finding teammates for open looks or to continue possession.
His head on a swivel and the ball seemingly glued to his foot, Vera’s abilities as a facilitator are often overlooked.
He even netted his second penalty kick marker of the postseason after being chopped down in the box midway through the second half, putting the Spartans in front when he dented the twine.
The game prior saw Vera wear down Auburn, scoring on a first-half penalty kick before breaking through the defense on a long pass to put the contest out of reach with a tally in the closing minutes.
If the defensive attention is frustrating Vera, he hasn’t shown it. And his teammates are thriving with extra running room and one-on-one matchups.
Sophomore Reyad Magdoul has been able to advance the ball through the center of the field almost at will with the shifted focus and Nate Hylan and Ben Michalowski have been crucial pieces of the offense, moving the play along their respective flanks.
Head coach Lincoln Stiles Jr. has stressed patience and sticking to the team’s game plan of playing the ball to feet and using its speed and skill. When it all comes together, the Spartans have been tough to stop.
This afternoon, No. 9 Dover-Sherborn will be the next team to pick its poison, traveling to Ashburnham for a Division 3 quarterfinal.
It’s pretty easy to see why teams focus on Vera. But what’s becoming clear now is the depth of the Spartans make them hard to stop.
ASHBURNHAM — It’s not a position the Oakmont Regional boys soccer team is all that familiar with, but playing from behind suited the Spartans just fine on Thursday night.
Top-seeded Oakmont fell behind No. 16 Holliston midway through the second half of a Division 3 round of 16 contest, but the Spartans netted a trio of goals over a 13-minute span to sink any chance of an upset, winning 3-1 at Arthur I. Hurd Memorial Field.
Down 1-0 after a Nathan Araujo goal in the 54th minute, the Spartans (19-2-0) didn’t falter again. Instead, the hosts simply picked up the pace to advance to the Division 3 quarterfinals.
“We’ve really only been behind for maybe 20 minutes all season. The big thing was that when we got behind, they didn’t get down, but there was a sense of urgency,” Oakmont head coach Lincoln Stiles Jr. said. “We need to play with that urgency for 80 minutes, but that last 20, they were all over it.
“That was really good and that’s the kind of team we have when they want to put it together. I think they proved that to themselves tonight. Holliston’s a really good program. … They were the No. 1 seed in Division 2 a few years ago and we know they’re a quality team.”
The Spartans will host No. 9 Dover-Sherborn — 3-0 winners over No. 8 Swampscott on Thursday — in the quarterfinal matchup at 4 p.m. on Sunday in Ashburnham.
“I told the kids before the game that the goal was to have practice tomorrow,” Stiles said with a smile. “We’re having practice tomorrow.”
With their season on the line, Oakmont responded almost immediately following Holliston’s tally. A pair of chances went by the wayside in the moments that followed, as Gael Vera’s feed to Adam Benhar was just out of reach in the box three minutes after the goal.
Two minutes after that missed connection, the Spartans nearly pulled even as Ben Michalowski took a feed from Vera and slotted a shot just above the crossbar.
If these opportunities frustrated the Spartans, it certainly didn’t show. In the 61st minute, the hosts capitalized on a chance as a ball came through the box to the foot of senior captain Liam Mullane who rifled a shot past Holliston netminder Quinn Polny (three saves) to tie the game at 1.
“Liam’s goal was obviously a big one,” Stiles said. “We decided to attack the end line like we had talked about and it opened some things up for us.”
Ten minutes later, the Spartans had the lead.
Vera was taken down in the box and awarded a penalty kick. With 100-plus career markers under his belt, Vera calmly stepped to the spot and fired a shot into the bottom left corner to put the hosts ahead, 2-1.
The Spartans added a bit of insurance two minutes later as Kaden Yoder’s corner kick found the head of Reyad Magdoul, who nodded the ball into the side netting for a two-goal lead.
“When they put it all together and there’s that sense of urgency, they can do some pretty good things,” Stiles said.
After a scoreless first half, the visiting Panthers (7-7-3) went ahead after a long ball by Alex Suhajda found Araujo near the Oakmont net. The Holliston senior took to the air and poked a bounding ball past Spartan keeper Ben Forbes (four saves).
LUNENBURG — In the final 10 minutes of Wednesday’s Division 4 round of 16 contest against East Boston, Lunenburg boys soccer coach Andy Christensen stressed one word over and over again to his team,
The message was received as the 11th-seeded Blue Knights bent, but never broke in the closing minutes, fending off No. 29 East Boston, 2-1, at the McCarron Turf Field.
The win puts the Blue Knights (12-5-2) in the Division 4 quarterfinals where they will face third-seeded Hampshire Regional Friday at 6 p.m. at Pope Francis in Chicopee.
“We’ve never gone this far (in the tournament). Never,” Christensen said. “I told my guys that these (East Boston) didn’t come all this way just to lay down, so we knew they were going to give us everything they had and we’d have to handle it.”
Clinging to a one-goal lead late, the Blue Knights leaned heavily upon the play of goalkeeper Bryce Whalen. The junior made an even dozen saves in the victory and saw East Boston put a pair of shots off the framework of the goal.
“All season, he’s been there for us,” Christensen said of his goalie. “Every time he’s been called upon, he makes stops. The kid is unbelievable. I never worry about him.”
East Boston’s best chance in the final moments of the game came off the boot of Helio Spinola, whose shot from the left side glanced off the crossbar and sailed wide with under two minutes left to play.
Lunenburg’s defense stood tall in the closing moments, securing the win.
The Blue Knights tallied a single goal in each half, with Cole Keefer’s marker in the 48th minute proving to be the difference. The senior captain boxed out an East Boston defender for the rebound on a shot by Owen Tuttle and directed the ball into the side netting for a 2-0 advantage.
East Boston (8-10-2) pulled to within one with 14 minutes left. Oscar Martinez collected a bouncing clearing attempt 25 yards away from Lunenburg’s net and volleyed a perfectly-placed shot just out of Whalen’s reach.
“We expected a lot of fast ball movement and a real push,” Christensen said. “They’re a young team, but they hit the ball hard. Having seen some of their other games, they were scoring from well outside, so that was something we had to worry about and Bryce had to be aware of.”
The Jets nearly opened the scoring just seconds into the contest on a long shot, with Adriano Garcia Gomez’s drive from distance finding the crossbar. The guests were relentless in the opening 10 minutes, pressuring the Blue Knights’ defense and Whalen.
But the hosts broke through first, scoring with three minutes remaining until halftime. A cleared ball found the foot of senior captain Anthony Silvera, who unleashed a low shot from 20 yards that beat East Boston keeper Santiago Montoya (eight saves) to his right and into the bottom corner of the net.
ASHBURNHAM — In a clash of physicality and skill, the dexterity of the Spartans prevailed.
The top-seeded Oakmont Regional boys soccer team overcame a challenge from No. 33 Auburn Monday evening in the Division 3 round of 32, advancing with a 2-0 victory at Arthur I. Hurd Memorial Field.
The Spartans (17-2-0) advance to the round of 16 and will host No. 16 Holliston Thursday at 6 p.m. in Ashburnham.
It took some time for the hosts to get going against a gritty Rockets side Monday, but by the final whistle, senior Gael Vera had tallied twice and classmate Ben Forbes made six saves between the pipes to send the Spartans forward.
“It’s always important for us to stay composed and at times we didn’t and at times we did,” Oakmont head coach Lincoln Stiles Jr. said. “Our game is being able to keep the ball at our feet and use our skill. If you start playing rushed and panicked, you don’t end up doing what you want to do.
“You need to be able to adjust. We didn’t do a great job of adjusting early on, but in the second half we did a better job of trying to keep the ball and possess.”
Vera gave the Spartans the only goal they’d need on the night in the 29th minute after Reyad Magdoul was dragged down in the Auburn box and Oakmont was awarded a penalty kick. The senior stepped up and fired a shot past a diving Nathan Gawronski (seven saves) and into the lower right corner.
The hosts struggled to add to the lead against a strong and physical Auburn defensive group. And when they did manage to get through, Gawronski was up to the task.
In the second half, the Auburn netminder came up big on several occasions, making a fingertip save on a Vera header in the 54th minute and deflecting another Vera chance on a 2-on-1 after a feed from Nate Hylan.
“We’ve been scoring a lot of goals, but we know that everybody knows about us. We know that everybody’s going to be playing five or six guys back to try to keep the ball out of the back of the net,” Stiles said. “We know we need to make adjustments and just keep working at it.
“I tell them to be patient because eventually you’re going to be able to break the other team down if you are patient.”
The patience eventually paid off as the hosts grabbed an insurance goal with four minutes left. As Auburn pressed, Hylan sent a long feed to Vera, who raced in on Gawronski and slid a shot home to put the game away.
While the Spartans challenged Gawronski a handful of times, Forbes made a half dozen saves at the other end with the majority of Auburn’s shots coming from distance. The defensive quartet of Jake O’Day , Cam Cormier, Gavin Rollo and Travis Rusak kept the Rockets from getting clean looks from up close or the center channel.
Auburn’s season ends with a mark of 12-5-3.