By Conor Walsh Correspondent
Gloucester Daily Times
---- — They may have taken different routes to get there, but when the Division 3 North boys soccer tournament opens up tomorrow, both Rockport and Manchester Essex will be in the mix.
After an impressive 12-4-2 regular season and a CAL Small title, the Vikings earned the No. 5 seed and a first-round bye. They’ll open up Sunday at home (6:00) against the winner of No. 12 North Reading and No. 21 Mystic Valley.
Down the road, the Hornets faced a far tougher climb to earn the program’s second-ever trip to the state tournament.
After an up-and-down season, Manchester Essex entered its final four games at 4-7-1. But from there, the Hornets turned it on, beating Ipswich, Rockport and Whittier Tech while playing to a draw with Georgetown to punch their ticket with a 3-0-1 final week of the season.
The Hornets drew the No. 16 seed and will host No. 17 Maimonides, a Jewish school located in Brookline, in the preliminary round tomorrow at Hyland Field (1:30) in what will be their first tournament appearance since 2006.
The winner of that matchup will move on to face top-seeded Boston International on Sunday. No. 8 Weston and No. 9 Cristo Rey round out the Hornets’ corner of the bracket, the winner of which will face the survivor of Boston International, Manchester Essex and Maimonides.
While Manchester Essex may not have any tournament experience on its current roster, the gauntlet of the Cape Ann League has coach Rob Bilsbury feeling confident.
“One thing that we do know is that playing in the Cape Ann League gets you ready,” Bilsbury said. “A lot of the teams in the CAL do pretty well in the tournament and there’s just a nice balance of good competition in the league. When you venture out of it, you’re well-prepared for tournament play coming out of the Cape Ann League.”
In total, seven CAL teams – No. 5 Rockport, No. 10 Newburyport, No. 11 Georgetown, No. 12 North Reading, No. 14 Ipswich, No. 15 Lynnfield and No. 16 Manchester Essex – will compete for the Division 3 North crown.
The Vikings, Hornets and North Reading all appear on the same side of the bracket, with the remaining four teams competing on the other side.
Rockport, the top-seeded CAL team, is no stranger to tournament success. In fact, over the past three seasons, the Vikings have a Division 3 North title, another appearance in the North championship game and a trip to the North semifinals.
And after a season like the Vikings enjoyed this fall, there’s little doubt that they’ve got their eyes on some more hardware.
First, though, they’ll likely have to get through a CAL foe in North Reading, who’s expected to beat Mystic Valley (5-10-3) in the opening round. The Vikings topped the Hornets, 2-1, in their only meeting this season.
“I anticipate us playing North Reading based on Mystic Valley and the league they’re coming from and knowing North Reading as I do,” Rockport coach Dave Curley said. “North Reading is very tough as we saw this year.”
Despite a solid regular season, though, Curley felt the Vikings’ final seeding could have been better. A loss to Manchester Essex and a draw with Lynnfield over the final week of the season, Curley noted, took three important points off of the Vikings’ final tally.
Had the Vikings won those two games, they’d have earned the No. 3 seed.
“We didn’t finish as high as I would have liked, losing those points to Manchester Essex and Lynnfield,” Curley said. “Two points that we missed may have cost us a seed or two, but sometimes being five is better than being one or two. We shall see.”
Should the Vikings get past North Reading or Mystic Valley, the winner of No. 4 St. Mary’s and Austin Prep/Bishop Fenwick will be waiting for them, three teams hailing from the traditionally strong Catholic Central Conference.
Not exactly an easy draw.
“St. Mary’s and the winner of Austin Prep vs. Bishop Fenwick on the other side of the bracket, they’re all coming from the same league,” Curley said. “They’re all tough. Strong league like ours. Doesn’t look like a weak sister.”
To prepare for that competition, Curley scheduled a scrimmage for his veteran-laden squad with powerhouse North Andover, the No. 2 seed in Division 2 North.
The Hornets, too, decided to square off against a top opponent to stay sharp. They scrimmaged Pentucket, Division 2 North’s top seed. The two teams took the field for their respective pre-tournament tune-ups last night, an experience both Bilsbury and Curley hope will help propel their squads through the Division 3 North bracket.
“North Andover’s a top-10 team in EMass, for sure,” Curley said. “They’ll be better than anybody we face in the tournament, so it’ll be a good challenge. It’s a good thing for us all-around to see that type of competition.”
“It’s absolutely awesome to be back in the tournament,” Bilsbury added. “These kids have worked really hard this season and they deserved this.”
Cape Ann State Tournament Schedule Friday, November 2 Boys Soccer: No. 16 Manchester Essex vs. No. 17 Maimonides (1:30 p.m.), Division 3 North Preliminary Round Girls Soccer: No. 15 Gloucester vs. No. 18 Melrose (3:00 p.m., Gordon College), Division 2 North Preliminary Round Saturday, November 3 Field Hockey: No. 2 Manchester Essex vs. No. 7 Lynnfield/No. 10 Pentucket winner (6:00 p.m.), Division 2 North Quarter Finals Sunday, November 4 Boys Soccer: No. 4 Rockport vs. No. 12 North Reading/No. 21 Mystic Valley winner (6:00 p.m.), Division 3 North First Round