ConVal soccer captain reflects on chemistry of a championship

  • The ConVal boys' soccer team hosted Kearsarge on Thursday. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Senior captain Manny Bowman and the ConVal boys’ soccer team won the first championship in program history this season. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Thursday, November 15, 2018 9:33AM

I have played with my best friends and Division I athletes, but no team has ever compared to this team.

To the public, this run started on the first day of tryouts, but to us players it started in the winter of 2017 in the P.E.S. gymnasium playing futsal and on those Sunday night trips to Henniker playing in our summer league. There were grumbles about having to give up our free time, but now that the season has wrapped up in the sweetest way possible, the complaints have been silenced.

Every program has doubters which help drive a team, but there has to also be internal motivation. As a senior captain on this 2018 boys’ soccer team, I focused on keeping the team from ever getting too high or too low. As a starter for the last three seasons, I saw both sides of this spectrum. I was there for the first record-setting 15-1 season, I was also there for the constant in-team arguing and clashing of heads in 2016. But once again this 15-1 2018 team had something different.

This season was driven by a core group of juniors similar to the way the 2016 team was. There are many similarities between these two teams. So what made this year so different? Maybe the coaching change, maybe the kids, who will ever really know? In my opinion, being there for both years it was the chemistry. The 2016 team had struggles staying positive and staying as one unit, one team. 2018 was the polar opposite – it seemed like every day our team was just smiling, having a great time.

The season started with a six-game shutout win streak. As miraculous and satisfying as this was, I was still focused on not letting it go to our heads. It is for this reason that our only loss to Oyster River, a 1-0 defeat where we gave up our first goal of the year, may have been one of the best things for us. It stung. As our season progressed and the record grew, that loss was always there in the back of our minds.

First place in Division II came down to the last game of the season, where if we had lost we would have dropped to second place, losing the head-to-head tiebreaker to Oyster River. As the playoffs progressed, we still knew Oyster River may end up in the finals which kept us from becoming complacent.

When Oyster River lost in the second round of the playoffs to Bow, it gave us a huge confidence boost. But once again I was focused on not allowing us to become cocky - just confident.

In our playoff run, we had to play Pembroke and Coe-Brown Northwood. Some within the team would’ve rather played Hollis Brookline or Bow, knowing they are two teams we had already beaten earlier in the season. To me, though, playing two teams we had not played helped keep us from feeling comfortable and kept us striving to prove we were the best team in Division II.

Any athlete knows that deep in a season, players often have to find motivation from a outside source as your body begins to feel tired. For us, this motivation was easy to find. It came from all of the people who said ConVal boys’ soccer was going to be bad in 2018 and that we were in a “rebuilding stage,” not to mention the constant thought of being the first ConVal boys to hold that Division II state champions trophy. After our first playoff win in the battle against Lebanon, our coach, Josh Smith gave us one more piece of motivation. He told us “If you guys win the semifinals, you can shave my head.” This may have been that last little bit of motivation that helped drive our championship run.

We had only had a few games where we were down on the scoreboard. Other than the loss to Oyster River we had come back from each of these deficits, the most memorable regular season comeback was against Hollis-Brookline. Our hearts had dropped after allowing a goal to Hollis with under two minutes remaining, giving them a 2-1 lead. Some players even dropped to the ground feeling defeated, but we rallied and senior captain Max Richard found the back of the net with less than 30seconds remaining. From there we had momentum and I ended up scoring my first goal in my high school career to win 3-2 in overtime. As the ball went from my foot through the air I could see the goalie reaching for the ball only to come up short. We broke into a frenzy, the bench cleared, running onto the field swarming me.

The championship evoked a similar feeling. We went down 1-0 early in the second half. I was worried because I knew Coe-Brown would drop into a defensive formation. I knew we had struggled at scoring goals from time to time throughout the season. But we quickly found the back of the net on a rebound off a free kick from Evan Merwede. When I saw the back of the net ripple, I felt my heart jolt back to life. Feeling rejuvenated, our team quickly found ourselves with a 3-1 lead. We scored three times in just under eight minutes - at this point, we knew it was our game to win or lose. Coe-Brown would get their second goal with four minutes remaining making it a one-goal game. I still felt confident but I could also feel my heart thumping just pleading to not allow this game to be tied.

I was almost in tears as Coe-Brown sent a cross in that was placed into the back of our net. But as I turned to the sideline I saw the sideline official flag raised signaling for offsides. I broke back into a frenzy knowing our lead was still safe. As each of the three whistles rang out all fear left my body and I was left with pure joy. We had done it, the first champions tears rolled down my face as I hugged each of my teammates.

Now the season is all wrapped up, and we have gone for our last run of the season as a team, but this time there was no complaining, no grumbling, just smiles, because this time we were running with a championship trophy.

Manny Bowman was one of ConVal’s senior captains when the Cougars won the school’s first-ever boys’ soccer championship this season.