MILO — With 14 days between its final regular-season match and its first postseason game, the Penquis Valley boys soccer team is flashing back to the start of preseason workouts.
“This week we’re going to go hard because we need to get our conditioning back,” said Patriots’ senior captain Shane Emery during Monday afternoon’s practice at Harris Field. “Then for the next week we’ll focus on game play, not necessarily who we’re playing but on getting ready for the 26th, because we know that’s when we’ll be playing.”
Penquis is hoping its return to preseason mode will produce the same results as it originally did in mid-August, because that earlier preparation has helped produce the first undefeated regular season in program history.
“We’re the talk of the town right now,” said Emery. “It’s pretty awesome.”
The Patriots will enter next week’s playoffs with a 12-0-2 record good for first place in Eastern Maine Class C entering Tuesday’s final day of regular-season matches.
“We knew we had a chance to be good,” said Penquis coach Jason Mills. “We lost some key seniors from last year, but we had some good players returning and some new players coming in and some players back who weren’t eligible last year, so we knew we had a chance to be good.
“But you never think you’re going to go undefeated.”
That success has its foundation in a defense anchored by Emery and sophomore goalie Trevor Lyford, who is scheduled to be cleared to return to practice Thursday after missing five games due to mononucleosis.
That duo is fronted by fullbacks Cody Larrabee, Tyler Pelletier, Jason Durant and Darren Lewis, a contingent that has limited opposing teams to just 12 goals this fall.
“Defense comes first, and we’ve got a good group back there,” said Mills. “Shane leads us back there, and when Trevor’s healthy in goal that’s a good combination.
“Our fullbacks are very solid, too. They do a good job of marking up, and if you get by one of them Shane’s back there to clean everything up. He’s a real good defender no matter what class you’re talking about.”
The Patriots’ offense has been boosted by the addition of senior striker Tyler Brzozowski, who has 12 goals and four assists in his first season with the team.
“He’s our leading scorer,” said Mills. “When he gets a chance around the goal, he finishes. He’s got a knack for finishing plays and he’s got a solid foot, but the other thing he does is he possesses the ball so well that he allows other guys to make runs and join the play offensively.
“He has 12 goals, but he could just as easily have that many assists with the way he plays.”
Brzozowski transferred to Penquis from neighboring Penobscot Valley of Howland just after the 2010-11 school year began — and too late to join the Patriots’ soccer team. But he became familiar with many of his current teammates by playing on the Penquis basketball and baseball teams last season..
“Coming into this year, I knew what they had lost but I also knew what they had back,” said Brzozowski, who joined the soccer program for its indoor season and summer schedule. “We knew we’d have some offense, but we knew that defense was going to be big for us. We knew we just needed to score one or two goals a game and the defense would do the rest.”
Isaiah Bess (six goals) and Greg Hathorn (three goals, five assists) complement Brzozowski on the front line, while George Cowing, Colton Larrabee, Gage McLaughlin and Devon Armstrong are the primary midfielders, though Amstrong took over the goalkeeping duties during Lyford’s absence.
“The team chemistry is just different this year, you can see the difference on the field,” said Emery. “The players on this year’s team work much better together than last year.”
Last year’s team reached the Eastern C semifinals before being ousted by Orono, and two regular-season victories over the Red Riots this year have served as measuring sticks for the current squad.
“Those games showed for sure that this year’s team is better than last year’s team in a lot of ways,” said Emery. “Just the way we compose ourselves on the field is a lot different than last year.”
Since back-to-back ties with local rivals Piscataquis of Guilford and Dexter in late September Penquis has won five straight matches — a winning streak the Patriots will take into its regional quarterfinal on Oct. 26.
And with six one-goal victories already this season as evidence, Penquis expects a rugged road ahead as it seeks the program’s first Eastern Maine championship since 1984.
“It’s been very competitive,” said Mills. “There’s going to be no easy quarterfinal game or prelim game.”
Yet there’s also a level of self-confidence within the team that comes with emerging from grind of regular-season play still unbeaten.
“If we play our game to our capability, we are going to be one of the toughest teams to beat,” said Brzozowski.
A BREAKTHROUGH YEAR AT MOUNT VIEW
This already has been a breakthrough season for the football team at Mount View High School of Thorndike.
After winning just three games in its first four years of varsity play, this year’s team will take a 5-2 record into Saturday’s LTC regular-season finale against Calais-Woodland.
And the local community — or communities, to be exact, given that the small towns of Brooks, Freedom, Jackson, Knox, Liberty, Monroe, Montville, Thorndike, Troy, Unity and Waldo all feed into Regional School 3 — have taken notice.
“We had a a huge crowd at our game, I think it’s a recognition of what we’ve been doing,” said fourth-year Mount View head coach Jack Brady after the Mustangs’ 44-12 homecoming victory over Washington Academy of East Machias last Saturday. “They came out and got a chance to see us win, and a lot of those people hadn’t seen us play before.
“The community here is really starting to embrace the high school football program.”
Fourteen seniors have keyed this team’s success, among them quarterback-defensive end Jalen Babin and fullback-linebacker Craig Nealley.
But as much as execution on the field has enabled the Mustangs to develop into a contender in the Eastern Maine Class C ranks, so, too, has a quality more intangible.
“The real improvement is just the maturity of the kids as athletes,” said Brady. “They’ve really taken to heart what we’ve been trying to teach them. We’ve asked the kids to work really hard to improve themselves as football players and they’ve done that and are reaping the benefits.”