The long, grueling grind that was the high school soccer regular season is now over with the Gloucester and Rockport boys being the only two teams left standing on Cape Ann.
Believe it or not, the last two plus months was the easy part as the state tournament is now upon us. The Fishermen and Vikings now have zero margin for error, one loss ends the season, and the intensity and focus of each game is ratcheted up this time of year.
“It’s the tournament, everything is done at a higher level,” said Rockport head coach Dave Curley, whose Vikings are playing in the state tournament for the fifth straight season. “The speed of play is higher as is the importance of attention to detail and of course the competition is always sharper. One and done changes the whole mental component of the game.”
The MIAA state tournament pairings were released on Wednesday with both Gloucester and Rockport receiving very tough draws.
Gloucester (7-6-3) drew the No. 13 seed in Division 2 North and will travel to No. 4 Concord Carlisle (13-1-2) on Sunday (Time TBA). Rockport earned the No. 2 seed in Division 4 North and will host No. 15 Lynn Tech on Saturday (5 p.m.).
The Fishermen’s first round draw is particularly tough as Concord Carlisle is universally seen as one of the top programs in the state and may also be considered the favorite to run through the Division 2 North bracket before the playoffs begin.
The Patriots pal in the shark tank that is the Dual County League, one of if not the most treacherous soccer conferences in the state, and boast wins over powerhouse programs such as Lincoln-Sudbury, Weston, Acton-Boxborough and Bedford. Concord Carlisle has not dropped a contest since losing its season opener to Cambridge on September 7.
Gloucester, on the other hand, enters the tournament reeling a bit having lost its final three regular season games to tournament teams Danvers, St. Mary’s and Marblehead. The Fishermen will have to play a near perfect game to knock off the Patriots on the road, but they have proven to get better as games wear on all season and have a defensive unit that can run with any offense.
“(Concord Carlisle) is usually a powerhouse,” Gloucester head coach Armando Marnoto said. “It’s a tough draw, we went over that with the kids today but we’ve been in there and hung with tough teams like Peabody, Danvers and Lynn Classical. We have been beating ourselves lately and we need to eliminate that, but if we go out and play our defensive style and limit the mistakes we have proven that we can play with anybody.”
The Fishermen enter the tournament a battle tested team as the Northeastern Conference was particularly tough this fall. Gloucester has played 10 of its 16 games against tournament teams. Marnoto is hoping that the team’s tough regular season schedule will make up for its lack of experience in the postseason as nobody on the Gloucester roster has played in a playoff game.
“The NEC was tough this year and it got us ready for this time of year,” Marnoto said. “We don’t have a lot of experience, which can help in the sense that the kids don’t know what to expect and will just come out and play their game. But at some point in these tournament games you like to have some players who have played in that situation before.”
The winner of Sunday’s Division 2 North First Round matchup will move on to the Division 2 North Quarterfinals next week to play the winner of No. 12 Beverly vs. No. 5 Northeast.
Rockport, on the other hand, plays a Lynn Tech team sporting a record of 7-9-1 earning a berth in the Division 4 North State Tournament thanks to the Sullivan Rule, which allows teams to qualify that put together an above .500 record against teams in its own division. The Tigers, however, play a tough out of conference schedule and the Vikings’ side of the bracket gets brutally tough after the first round.
“(Lynn Tech) plays a tougher schedule than most teams out of the Commonwealth Conference,” Curley said. “Other than that, I don’t know anything about them. We need to worry about what we are going to do as opposed to what they do. Of course it helps you prepare having seen them or played against them, but we are going to have to go blind into that one. The rest of the teams in the field we have seen and there are no secrets between any of us.”
In Division 4 North there are seven teams that appear to stand tall above the rest in Rockport, Georgetown, Ipswich, Hamilton-Wenham, St. Mary’s, Boston International and Bishop Fenwick. Of those seven teams, only Georgetown and Ipswich are playing on the opposite side of the bracket from Rockport. The other five are on the same side as the Vikings and whoever gets to the finals will certainly have earned it.
If Rockport, which has made it to the sectional semifinals each of the last four seasons, can get past Lynn Tech on Saturday it will move on to the sectional quarterfinals to play the winner of No. 7 Hamilton-Wenham and No. 10 Commonwealth Academy of Science and Health. The Generals are heavy favorites on paper to win its first round matchup and is one of the favorites in the section.
Rockport and Hamilton-Wenham met once in the regular season and the contest ended in a 1-1 draw.
The Vikings, who have not played since last Wednesday, have welcomed the break but are eager to get back on the field Saturday. The Vikings and Fishermen will scrimmage each other this afternoon for a tournament tune-up.
“After the regular season ended last week, we were physically and emotionally drained,” Curley said. “We definitely welcomed the break and it was nice to recharge the batteries. But now we’re excited to get the tournament started.”
Curley is hoping his team’s experience will help it make a run back to the semifinals and beyond.
“We’re blessed that all of our seniors have state tournament experience,” the Vikings head coach said. “In the tournament, you always need some big stops from your goalie and an opportunistic offense, but we have learned over the years that if you control that neutral third of the field you put yourself in a good position to win. That’s what it takes to win in the tournament.”