HAMPDEN, Maine — Heads might be spinning for many athletes faced with the prospect of playing for a third different coach in as many years.
But that’s not the case for the Hampden Academy boys’ soccer team, which returns 10 seniors for new head coach Josh Stevens.
“I think the biggest difference for the players is a culture change from them being more loose on the field and maybe getting away with a little bit more to now where we’ve tightened things up quite a bit,” said Stevens, an assistant coach under Kiaran McCormack last fall.
“The respect these kids are showing to other teams and members of the community has greatly increased. That was my primary challenge, but having so many seniors has made the transition easy.”
With an experienced lineup that features the return of most of the starting midfielders and defenders from last year’s 9-5-2 team has come high expectations — expectations enhanced by the addition of a key transfer in junior striker Graham Safford, who helped Camden Hills of Rockport reach the Eastern Maine Class B final last fall.
Safford has proven to be an effective finisher early in the season, scoring five goals in 2-0 Hampden victories over Skowhegan and Waterville.
“I had to get used to the players on my team, but we have a lot of great players so we’ve meshed pretty quickly,” said Safford. “From Day 1 we knew who the leaders were going to be. I think a lot times teams have trouble finding the leaders early in the season, but we already had that set.”
Safford has worked up front in concert with senior striker Brad Dolan.
“Graham and I have meshed pretty well so far this season,” said Dolan. “We’ve been working real well up top. He’s got five of our eight goals so far and it’s been great working with him. He finishes just about everything.”
Senior captains Sam Morris and Grant Aylward anchor the midfield in the Broncos’ 4-4-2 alignment, flanked by sophomore Ben Clark and junior Corey Grover.
Senior captains Jake Hereen and Austin Michaud key the defense from their center fullback slots, with classmates Matt El-Hajj and Jeromy Leong playing outside fullbacks in front of sophomore goalie Logan Poirier
“I like the senior leadership,” said Stevens. “We’ve got a very experienced team. Most of these guys are returning starters, and they make good decisions on the field. Rarely ever do I have to correct them in anything they’ve done.
“Our strong point so far is winning balls in the air and working the ball through the midfield. As long as we continue to do that we should be successful.”
The Hampden players agree one of the chief obstacles to winning a state championship, or at least the program’s first Eastern Maine Class A title since 2004, will be overcoming their chief rival, defending regional champion Bangor.
The Rams defeated Hampden three times by an identical 3-0 score last season, the final time in the Eastern A quarterfinals,
But while Bangor has lost just three times in 53 matches since the start of the 2006 season, two of those defeats have come against Hampden — once during the 2006 regular season, and most recently in the 2007 EM quarterfinals.
“Our goal is the state championship, that’s one we’ve really been focusing on,” said Hereen. “Of course, Bangor’s a big rival, and Austin and I and two others on this team are the only members who were part of the team our sophomore year when we beat them in the quarterfinals. But last year has stayed in our memory, too, losing to them the way we did.”
Hampden and Bangor are scheduled to meet twice during the regular season, Sept. 24 at Hampden and the regular-season finale Oct. 20 at Bangor.
“This team really has the potential to be special,” said Stevens. “That’s what I continue to tell them, that they’re right on the verge.
“With the program Bangor has had the last few years, they really are the benchmark, but if we can beat Bangor I think that will let us know that we’re capable of winning a state championship.”