LEOMINSTER — Jevic Perez sat alone on the home-team bench, alternately leaning forward and looking down and leaning back and looking up.
None of it did anything to alter the outcome.
Perez, a junior co-captain, and the rest of the Leominster High boys’ soccer team had dropped a 2-1 decision to Wachusett Regional to lower their record to 1-2 some 15 minutes earlier on Tuesday night in marquee matchup of fellow pod members at historic Doyle Field.
“Definitely manage the ball,” a despondent Perez responded when asked what the Blue Devils could have done better. “We just kept kicking it over. We didn’t play quick on the ground like we usually do. We were just out of our game tonight and we have to get back to it Thursday against Algonquin.”
So while participation is being emphasized during a COVID-19 altered and shortened season, competitiveness still reigns among players, coaches and fans.
“We just want to go out and win,” Ryan Montalto, one of five senior captains, said after the Mountaineers improved to 2-0-2 while in pursuit of the top seed in their geographic pod for a season-ending tournament.
Leominster is the defending-for-perpetuity Central Mass. Division 1 champion as a statewide tournament will replace the longtime regional format beginning with the 2020-21 school year. Wachusett claimed that crown in 2018.
Their first meeting in a season unlike any other in their storied histories while playing a modified version of the sport that eliminates heading, corner kicks and throw-ins among other things in a bid to promote safety during the coronavirus pandemic drew me here.
The scene on this unseasonably mild late-October evening was equally strange and familiar.
There were maybe 60 fans in the stands, including 10 players from the Leominster JV team, while 13 folks who didn’t have the required passes to enter the bowled stadium looked on through a chain-link fence. Visiting fans weren’t allowed.
The biggest absence undoubtedly was the Blue Devils’ student section.
“They’d be going wild,” athletic director Dave Palazzi said.
But once the players took the field for warmups, the sounds of Don Omar’s “Danza Kudora” and Oh the Larceny’s “About to Get Crazy” filled the humid air. Then the starting lineups were introduced by longtime PA announcer Dick Tucker before the playing of the national anthem.
The 80-minute match saw goals by Mountaineers senior Koichi Ash (12th minute) and junior Connor Smith (53rd) and Blue Devils sophomore Xavier Bonilla (16th). Other highlights/lowlights depending on your allegiance included a penalty kick by Ash that ricocheted off by the right post and a terrific kick save by Leominster sophomore keeper Anthony Truong.
And, oh yeah, plenty of contact despite modifications instituted to reduce physicality.
“I think it feels like Mid-Wach soccer,” said Leominster coach Steve McCaughey, who squad surely missed injured all-state midfielders Christian Godinho and Alex Miller. “You could see kids are still allowed to be physical, but within some limits. So I don’t think any of the competitiveness was lost.”
“Just a fairly typical game between Wachusett and Leominster except Wachusett would typically love to attack us more through the air with their heads. So the major difference I see in these games is the inability to play the ball with your head.”
Players going up for a header wasn’t an issue, but constant reminders could be heard from both sides to “don’t touch the ball.” A ball handled by anyone in attendance must be removed from play and disinfected before it can be utilized again.
Still, a Leominster player and Wachusett coach both did just that.
“What a joke,” one fan commented to no one in particular after the first such incident, either unfamiliar with or unsupportive of the safety measure.
And at game’s end, a Wachusett player came off the bench and started high-fiving and shaking hands with his teammates only be told by an official to stop as such contact isn’t allowed by anyone.
Then, in familiar fashion, each coach addressed their team. The messages were also modification-free, emphasizing ways to get better and things that were done well.
“A game like this makes me think of ways we can improve,” Wachusett coach Jason Gaumond said before heading off to his (not) surprise 50th birthday party. “And as much as I’m happy for the sophomores and the juniors, I’m so proud of the seniors. You were the driving force tonight.”
With that the Mountaineers exited through the southeast gate at Doyle Field while the Blue Devils used the northwest gate, just another modification designed to limit contact in a sport that, thankfully, still is flush with physicality and, most importantly, competitiveness as Perez can attest.
—Contact Rich Garven at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RichGarvenTG.
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