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Concord boys’ soccer team heads to Final Four with 2-0 win over Exeter

A year after missing the playoffs and winning just two games, the Concord boys’ soccer team is back in a familiar place – the Division I Final Four.

With yesterday’s 2-0 victory over No. 5 Exeter (11-5-2), the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide (14-2-2) qualified for its sixth semifinal in the last nine years.

“Different year, different group of kids,” Concord Coach Scott Dunlop said, “but it’s very rewarding.”

Those different kids made a big difference yesterday as junior Gaston Arocena and freshman Chris Pinkham, two of the six starters who did not play for the Tide in 2012, scored the goals. Arocena gave Concord the lead in the ninth minute and Pinkham gave his team some appreciated breathing room in the 53rd.

“Everyone was very excited for this game, we knew the stakes and what was at risk,” Pinkham said. “We knew what we needed to prove, to show that we deserve to be in the top four and in the semifinals.”

Pinkham, Arocena and Emmanuel Smith, who was once again a force from his left back position, are all new to the program, while Kyler Thayer, Dan Vignati and Augustine Fornor are back after playing for Seacoast United last fall. While those six have made a huge impact, they only make up half the starting lineup, so the key returners from the 2012 squad – keeper Andrew Grondin, junior captain Matt Chartier, Isaac Dugas, Daniel Nkhalamba, Mohamed Mohamed and first-off-the-bench subs Dominique Girard and Ben Picard – have all been instrumental to Concord’s success this year.

“Last year’s team had a great level of intensity,” Dunlop said. “It was a great group of kids with a lot of heart, but this year we’re definitely more talented and still have that same level of commitment.”

The entire Tide side was clicking from the start against the Blue Hawks. Concord was quicker to the ball and controlled possession early, and the reward was Arocena’s goal. The play started with a free kick from Nkhalamba that the Tide played like a corner kick, sending all off its big defenders, including Arocena, into the box. Nkhalamba sent the ball into the scrum, it eventually caromed off Exeter keeper Henrik Barbin, and then landed at Arocena’s feet.

“I saw the ball bounce right before it hit the goalie, it hit his chest and I just took my opportunity right there, placed it in with my left when it came off him,” Arocena said.

Concord maintained control of the game for the next 20 minutes, but Exeter finally found its footing at the end of the half and began challenging for possession and goals. The Blue Hawks had two chances to tie in the last three minutes, but a shot from Austin Kimball was just a bit high and then Grondin made a leaping save off a header from Carlos Barron, tipping the ball over the crossbar.

Play went back and forth to start the second half, but it was the Tide that found the opening. Pinkham made a straight run to goal, Smith put the ball right on him, and Pinkham headed it over Barbin to make it 2-0 with 27:30 left on the clock.

“Previous to the pass, Emmanuel told me to make a run that way, I did it, and he made a great pass,” Pinkham said. “I happened to glimpse at the goalie for a second and noticed he was off his line, so I just plopped it over and put it in.”

With its two-goal lead, Concord backed off a touch, and Exeter took full advantage. The Hawks produced all of the shots (four) and corner kicks (four) after Pinkham’s goal, but they just couldn’t find the scoring touch. The final shot total was 7-7, very different from the regular-season meeting between these teams on Sept. 3, when Concord held a 28-6 shot advantage but the match ended in a 1-1 tie.

“This was a much tighter game than the first time we played them, they were a different team from what we faced at the beginning of the season,” Dunlop said.

Next up for the Tide is a rematch with No. 1 Hanover at Stellos Stadium in Nashua at 6 p.m. on Thursday in the second of the two D-I semifinals. The Marauders beat No. 8 Timberlane, 4-1, yesterday to move their record to 17-0-1. The one blemish on that record came courtesy of Concord, which held Hanover to a 0-0 tie on Oct. 17.

“We felt that we let that game slip through our hands because we had so many chances in the first half, but we left them on the table,” Dunlop said.

That experience against the Marauders, coupled with yesterday’s win, will give the Tide some positive energy when it heads to Stellos.

“We’re definitely happy to be in the final four,” Arocena said, “and we’re confident that maybe we can win this thing.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

DIVISION II

No. 3 Pembroke 3,
No. 6 Portsmouth 1

The Spartans (15-2-1) came out with more intensity than their Clipper opponents (12-3-3), scoring two first-half goals against a tough defense, while displaying some good defense of their own.

“We played with a lot of energy,” Pembroke Coach Peter Bisson said. “They have a couple of good players, so we wanted to limit them and put pressure on them.”

The Spartans did for most of the first half, with Aaron Locke scoring in the ninth minute (Jeremy Caruso assisted) and Parker Heath scoring in the 31st (Austin Sartwell assisted), but a breakdown on defense in the 39th minute led to a set piece and Portsmouth’s Ian Troost took advantage, cutting Pembroke’s lead in half before halftime.

“A lack of organization led to the goal. We gave them a little bit of life, but we came out in the second half ready to press them again,” Bisson said.

Caruso’s strike in the 72nd minute was the contest’s final goal, with Spencer Nowe assisting. The play up front was key in the victory with Sartwell playing well in the air against a tall team and Locke keeping the pressure on the Portsmouth defense.

According to Bisson, that same kind of pressure will be needed to defeat No. 2 Hollis-Brookline on Thursday at Exeter’s Bill Stadium. The Cavaliers (15-2) beat Pembroke, 2-1, earlier this season.

DIVISION III

No. 1 Hopkinton 3,
No. 8 Laconia 0

The Hawks started their offensive barrage early, putting six shots on net in the first five minutes and Riley McNicholas scoring two goals in the first half to send the top-seeded Hawks flying into the semifinals.

Hopkinton kept the Sachems (12-6) pinned in their own end in the first half, peppering Laconia goalkeeper Panthavy Pradachitch (12 saves). When the Sachems did manage to play the ball out of their own end, the Hawks quickly turned things around and “skillfully orchestrated counter-attacks,” according to Coach Scott Zipke, resulting in two goals by the junior midfielder McNicholas in the 22nd and 23rd minutes. Forward Zach Rouleau extended the lead to 3-0 in the 57th minuted after a corner kick to Evan Ruderman was then sent to Rouleau in the box for the finish.

Hawks keeper Rob Ferguson was called on to make only two saves, but one of them was a full-extension save with eight minutes remaining in the match, Laconia’s only serious chance at spoiling the shutout. Keenan Trahstrom played a very organized game defensively at marking back and made a key slide tackle in the box with five minutes to go to preserve the clean sheet, leading the effort in Hopkinton’s 14th shutout in 18 games this season.

The Hawks (17-0-1) next face No. 4 Prospect Mountain (14-2-2) in the semifinals on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Merrimack Valley High School.

No. 2 Bow 1,
No. 7 White Mountains 0

The Falcons (16-1-1) survived a scare from the Spartans (13-5), but the Bow defenders played very well collectively, earning the Falcons’ 10th shutout in the last 12 games. And Benjamin Maurer scored the game-winning goal in the 75th minute to prevent the upset.

White Mountains was the more aggressive and intense team from the opening whistle, according to Bow Coach George Pinkham, using long throw-ins and dead ball plays to put pressure on the Falcons defense, but a strong effort from David Merchan, Mitchell Blair, Nathan Louf, Nathan Riera, Braden Dugas, Louis Miyara, David Poulin and Thomas Poulin allowed little penetration into their defensive third. That made life easy for goalkeeper Tim Bradley, who made four saves on mostly long shots directed straight at him.

“Defense was the story of the game,” Pinkham said. “Our defense is strong enough so that Tim isn’t put in a position where he needs to make a lot of saves, unlike a lot of other teams.”

It was a close game where a single mistake could prove costly, which is exactly what happened with five minutes to go when Maurer intercepted an errant White Mountains clearance 10 yards outside the box. Two touches later he buried a blistering shot to the far right corner of the net.

Bow advances to the semifinals to play the Cinderella team of the tournament, No. 14 Sanborn, on Thursday at 4 p.m. at Merrimack Valley High School. The Indians (10-8) upset No. 3 Gilford and No. 6 Stevens to earn their berth in the Final Four.

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