By Matt Williams
---- — Ask a sports fan to name the best boys soccer team in recent memory from the North Shore, and you’re not likely to get a lot of arguments or debate.
The 2006 Division 1 state titlists from St. John’s Prep fits the bill on every level: talent, accomplishments, a lofty national ranking and a sparkling undefeated record to go with their championship hardware.
There’s one other North Shore boys soccer question that is indisputable, however. The title of best coach surely belongs to Masconomet’s Lenny Emmons, he of 576 wins, 28 Cape Ann League championships and just one losing season in 40 years.
What, then, might happen if time were no obstacle and Emmons’ Division 2 state championship team from 1996 matched up against the vaunted Eagles of a decade later?
“Lenny always had his teams prepared to play and they always had depth,” said St. John’s Prep head coach Dave Crowell. “He was a great motivator. When those kids put that Masco shirt on, it means something and he was responsible for that attitude, year in and year out.”
Emmons actually did coach against the Eagles in 2006, with the Prep winning 5-2 in the season opener. It was a fairly young Masconomet team, some of whom would go to the state final two years later in ‘08. It’s worth noting that the Chieftains were the only team to score two goals against St. John’s Prep all season.
“I don’t know much about the ‘96 team, but from knowing how Masco played against us it always seemed to be an exciting game,” said Ben Slingerland, one of St. John’s captains in ‘06. “I always remember it was a big game for our Topsfield and Middleton guys.”
The passage of time makes it easy to forget just how good Masconomet was in 1996, when they took home the only boys soccer state title by a North Shore team besides the Prep’s over the last 25 years.
A walk down memory lane reveals a potentially formidable foe.
The Chieftains wound up 19-3-2 by the end of a magical November that saw them tear through the Division 2 state tournament. They were a well rounded and experienced group, with 17 seniors determined to restoring the program, beginning with winning the Cape Ann League crown. They hadn’t won one since 1993, and doing so was a big sticking point during Emmons’ lung-crushing preseason double-sessions.
“He was drilling that into us all through training camp. He let us know right away that was goal,” said Peter Nechtem, a senior defender from that team. “I just remember running. From the minute two-a-days started, we ran. We were always the best conditioned team.”
Emmons, who retired in 2010, was famous for running along with his players. That season, he damaged a surgically repaired knee while running with the team at practice,
“I remember we could hear it kind of crunching, and you wanted to say ‘Coach are you sure that’s OK?’ but he kept going,” Nechtem recalled. Emmons missed two games after having another surgery before he was back on the sidelines.
Masco’s athleticism allows it to matchup with any all-time great team. There were a number of two and three-sport athletes, like big forward Dan Maher, and Emmons’ conditioning standards meant the Chieftains could wear down most opponents. The sheer number of seniors also meant they had the depth to plug in fresh legs when needed.
“Having a senior-dominated team, we’d win battles with strength and speed. We won a lot of games purely with athleticism,” said Andy Nechtem, the only freshman to make the varsity that fall. “We had some great skill and some great technical guys, but overall you could bet on us being more athletic than most teams.”
Up front, Masconomet had a terrific striker in Evan Reece (19 goals, 16 assists), the CAL Player of the Year and his team’s leading scorer. He was flanked by Will Carey (15 goals, 14 assists) and Mike Soucy. Reece’s skill was on display on an amazing winner in double-overtime of the Division 2 North final against Winchester, a 15-yard shot from the right side to the far corner, fed by Carey.
“I distinctly remember that Evan had this wonderful goal, from an unimaginable angle,” said Andy Nechtem, who would be CAL Player of the Year as a senior in 1999 and later played at Harvard. “Stuff would happen where you could see some serious talents.”
Captain Kent Geisel was a strong presence at midfield and Aaron Biscaglia was a skilled passer in the middle, too. Maher was a big, athletic body that score five state tournament goals, “Balls were bouncing off every part of his body and going in,” Peter Nechtem remembered.
Carey was outstanding in the air, giving Masconomet the ability to play a ground-based passing game and also attack aerially.
On defense were players like Mike DiChiara and the Nechtem brothers, who both said that playing together for the first time was one of the highlights of their athletic careers. Mark Capone was valuable at sweeper and Chris Stambaugh was a solid fullback in front of goalkeeper Ryan King.
“The defense was good, but I think our strength was up front,” said Peter Nechtem. “Evan was really special. We played together growing up and the strategy was kick to to Evan; he’d outrun anybody. Will really controlled the box and had his way, too.”
The dominance of St. John’s Prep in 2006 was, in no uncertain terms, a sight to behold.
The Eagles finished 22-0-2 and were ranked No. 6 nationally by the NSCAA at season’s end. They had athletes — and supremely skilled soccer players — at every level of the field, and on the bench.
St. John’s versatility makes it hard to predict how any time machine match might go. The Eagles were smart and talented enough to adapt to any style of soccer, be it an offensive game, a defensive game, a physical game, a finesse game or something in between.
“That was the kind of team that comes along once in a long while,” said Crowell. “We could win any way. If teams wanted to bang, we could match that and we could also run. One thing that always came up was the team speed — we had speed everywhere, but we had players talented enough to play with skill at that high speed.”
Captains Tim Prior (an All-New England selection at striker) and Slingerland (an All-American at midfield) could be lethal with the ball. So too could striker Jeff Dell’Orfano, as well as Sean Bishop, who could seemingly make an accurate pass from any position on the pitch.
“Looking back, the most comfortable I ever felt on a soccer field was playing with the Prep that year,” said Slingerland, who played at Georgetown University. “I felt like I had so much time with the ball because we were all on the same page and there were so many options.”
Owen Fox, one of the few young players on the 2006 team, had an amazing state tournament with two goals in the state final. He was also an invaluable weapon on set pieces because of his ability to throw in, giving the Prep’s opponents yet another thing to worry about.
On defense, Craig Harvey was an outstanding goalkeeper with 10 shutouts. Christian Woelfel had a solid season in the back and upperclassmen Ben Ersing (a captain), Jessie Marks, Dere Amaral, Mike Fellows, Ryan Lanigan and Mike Caruso were additionally valuable.
“What sticks out in my mind was the fact that we were such a team. You look at all the guys who went on; quite a few guys played pretty good college soccer,” said Slingerland. “There wasn’t one guy who did all the heavy lifting. It was really spread out. The ultimate team.”
Look no further than the scores: In 24 games, the Eagles had a clean sheet 10 times, allowed one goal 13 times and conceded a meager two goals against just once (against Masconomet). Their dominance was complete as they scored four or more goals eight times and three or more on 13 occasions.
They also scored an unheard of six goals against a highly-regarded Acton-Boxboro team.
“That game sticks out. They’d lost in the state finals the year before and had been nationally ranked,” said Crowell. “Even as the game went on it felt like, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Perhaps the greatest compliment came from Algonquin’s head coach after the state final. His team was coming off two straight titles — and he was quoted as saying after the contest that his team was hoping they could break the Prep down once. That’s right: once the entire game.
Aiming for two goals against a team as composed and dialed in as those Eagles was difficult even for a strong opponent.
“The thing that amazed me was the leadership and how composed the team was,” said Crowell. “They figured out how good they were and what they were capable of, and their focus was phenomenal. Everybody was gunning for us — and they didn’t blink. That’s a credit to the seniors.”
There’s plenty to compare and contrast in the lineups, but its also worth looking specifically at the similarities in the postseason runs made by these two North Shore juggernauts. After all, the fact that they made it through the postseason is what sets them apart from all the rest.
For Masco, the 1996 state tournament was a chance to arrive on the state level. The Chieftains had already won their 19th CAL title under Emmons, but had only been to a sectional final once (in the 1980s).
“It was an interesting dichotomy because there was this very rich soccer history, but it didn’t go very far beyond Cape Ann,” said Andy Nechtem. “We had a great run in our little corner of the state, but it was time to make it a bigger deal.”
The Chieftains started by edging Lincoln-Sudbury, 2-1, then got by Dracut, 4-3, when Maher scored all four goals (the winning tally with 4:18 to play). Masco then took care of Burlington, 3-1, and finally got by Winchester in the North final on Reece’s amazing goal.
At that point, the quest for the school’s first state title started to become real.
“I remember coach telling us this was our chance to be the star of the show and you don’t get many of those in your lifetime,” said Peter Nechtem. “That opportunity on a big stage, relatively speaking, doesn’t come up. We felt an air of destiny about us.”
Soucy scored twice in the state semifinal win over Plymouth North (”less heralded than Evan but every bit as good in my opinion,” Peter Nechtem said), and the Chieftains were in the state final for the first time.
Masco actually trailed David Prouty in that state final and had to rally to win in the second half (after a scathing, and inspiring, speech from Emmons). Geisel had the winning goal midway through the second half, after Masco adjusted to the more physical style and asserted themselves.
“The state final (in Worcester) was so cold and we had never played on artificial turf before,” Peter Nechtem said. “Things just weren’t working for us in the first half, but we grinded through. Kent hit this ball on a hop that took a crazy, banana curve and went into the upper corner. We were all shocked. It was pretty special.”
Today, Masco’s players still remember the celebration. Emmons called it a victory for every Masconomet player that had ever played the game.
“It was one of those ‘Hoosiers’ or ‘Friday Night Lights’-type things where the whole town caravaned out there. You saw people you hadn’t seen in years, neighbors, friends,” Andy Nechtem said. “It was the most special athletic experience I ever had.”
It was the same feeling for St. John’s Prep, a team that certainly had loftier expectations than Masco did heading into the postseason but relished the moments just the same. The Eagles were mobbed on the field after beating Algonquin for the title.
“It was so much fun,” said Crowell. “To win the tournament is extremely difficult and something you remember forever.”
The Eagles got by Brookline, 3-0, then had an overtime game of their own in the second round. Slingerland scored the winner in a 2-1 decision in overtime over Woburn on solid work from Bishop and Hunter Clark. Woburn actually led, 1-0, at one point.
St. John’s then nipped Framingham, 1-0, before toppling Lexington, 2-1, in the North final. As the state final got closer, pressure mounted on the Eagles to finish the season unbeaten. But the seniors never allowed that pressure to put cracks in the foundation.
“The thing that amazed me was as the season went on and that national ranking kept climbing, they guys never buckled. It was a rare group that way,” Crowell said.
The Eagles downed rival Catholic Memorial, 2-0, in the state semifinal and then handled Algonquin in the final. The four goals they netted in their last game were their most of the state tournament.
“We had an idea that we’d be pretty good and we were driven,” said Slingerland. “Everything, every game, seemed to work out. We had a couple ties, but even in those games there was never any panic as a group, which is a key thing in soccer.”
As seven years have passed, it’s become clear that teams like that St. John’s club don’t come along very often. Even at the time, the Eagles finally wondered where they stood nationally after securing the state title.
“That was the first thing I was thinking after this. It’s over and we have this national ranking. I would love to continue on and, just for fun, see how far we could get,” Ersing said after the state final.
For Masconomet, a decade earlier, the reflection also began after the final whistle of the state final.
“What I’ll remember 10, 20, even 50 years down the road is how we pulled together as a team and made this actually happen,” Geisel said. “There were 17 seniors and we wanted to go out with a bang. We knew we had the capability to do this; it was just a matter of putting it all together and making it happen. The fact that we did just that will stand out more than anything in my mind. I’ll never forget this team.”
Who would win an all-time game between these teams? It’s nearly impossible to say, especially because St. John’s Prep was so disciplined and so unlikely to be pulled out of form by anything. At the same time, Masconomet had some pretty good athletes all over the field, and it only takes one great play to make a low-scoring soccer match a classic.
Independent of that, however, is the fact that both teams reached the pinnacle of their respective sports. No one can ever take away the greatness both groups tasted on the pitch.
“For the month of November, we felt like the world was ours,” said Peter Nechtem.
For both Masconomet in 1996 and St. John’s Prep in 2006, it was.