By Phil Stacey Sports editor
The Salem News
---- — DANVERS — Can you really be that disappointed if you score two goals against a team that allowed that exact same amount in its first 11 games combined?
Can you really be upset after controlling the action for large chunks of time against a club from arguably the best high school soccer league in the state, but not have two points to show for it?
And can you really be frustrated after not losing to a squad that is unbeaten through a dozen matches this season?
If you’re the St. John’s Prep soccer team, you can be. That’s how high the Eagles have set their expectations this fall.
In a battle that had the look, feel and physical play of a state tournament game, St. John’s Prep battled powerhouse Acton-Boxborough to a 2-2 tie yesterday afternoon.
OK, so disappointed, upset and frustrated may be overstatements. Perhaps it’s better put that while the Eagles (12-1-1) wish they could have held on for the win, ultimately they know yesterday’s 80-minute showdown will make them better prepared in the long run for the upcoming state tournament.
“It gives us a lot of confidence,” said senior midfielder Nick Agresti, who scored the Prep’s first goal yesterday. “It proves we can play with anyone. It’s great for our morale and confidence.”
“I’m disappointed we had the lead (in the second half) and gave it up,” added Dave Crowell, head coach of the Eagles, “but a game like this, ultimately it’s about getting better for states.”
In reality, there were a lot of positives for the Prep to hang their cleats on.
Goalkeeper Ben Alpern was immense on many occasions, making five saves in each half. The Beverly resident came up especially big in the second half when the Colonials (9-0-3) were pressing for the tying goal, making a spectacular diving stop to his right off a loose ball that went awry in the box. He also punched the potential go-ahead goal over his net late in the first half.
In front of him, defenders Matt Brady, Tom Erickson, Cory Lang and captain Carter Ocko showed poise and athleticism in breaking up would-be scoring chances before shots were fired Alpern’s way.
“This was a great challenge, getting to see how well our midfielders and defense can really play,” said the 17-year-old Alpern. “They had a lot of balls in the box in the second half, but we were able to clear them.”
It was the first time this season the Eagles found themselves having to defend their own goal for such long stretches of play, admitted Crowell.
“Today showed how good high school soccer is. This wasn’t kick-and-chase; this was great high school soccer,” he said.
Captain Brooks Clark had a fine game controlling the middle of the field for St. John’s, while junior striker Anthony Vigliotta of Beverly got himself into scoring position on numerous occasions.
A monster in the Dual County League, Acton-Boxboro had the Eagles back on their heels after scoring just 38 seconds into the contest. But slowly St. John’s Prep took the momentum back and tied it in the 29th minute on Agresti’s shot from the left wing that beat keeper Andrew Hoang inside the far post.
“I knew (Hoang) was aggressive and takes a high line when the ball’s upfield,” said the 17-year-old Agresti, who calls Swampscott home. “I got the ball (from Tom Buonopane) with some space around me, so I just sort of hit the ball without looking (at the net). I just wanted to hit it clean.”
The Eagles took a 2-1 lead 53 minutes in when junior striker Matt Chilton took a great pass from Brady and beat Hoang cleanly.
“That was a great overlapping run by Matt,” Chilton noted, “so I just went up the sideline and was focused on good technique. I just wanted to put a shot on net and give the goalie a challenge.”
Trailing for only the second time all season, A-B wouldn’t relent. After a riveting save by Alpern kept his team ahead, talented sophomore Steve DeLeo got his second goal of the game off a scramble out front. That’s tied the game — and that’s how it ultimately ended.
“It’s so important to play a team like that,” Colonials’ coach Dave Baumritter said. “It tests you under pressure, stretches you as a team and makes you see where we need to be better.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see them again (in the playoffs). I’d rather see them later on than early, though.”
It was a thought that Crowell echoed.
“They beat us at our place last year on penalty kicks in the first round. That’s too early to meet them,” he said. “This time I’d rather see them later than earlier, too.”