BANGOR — After absorbing a 5-0 loss to Old Town barely two weeks ago, a youthful John Bapst of Bangor boys soccer team made a veteran move — holding a players-only practice.

The move seems to have paid off, because the Crusaders — just 1-3-1 at that point — haven’t lost since then while forging their way into the thick of the Eastern Maine Class B playoff hunt.

“We weren’t having a very good day that day,” said first-year John Bapst coach Sean Smith. “I basically told them to take the weekend off, but then the next day I was dropping some things off for a friend who lives near our field, and I saw a couple of kids kicking around a ball and I thought, ‘that’s good.’”

It turned out to be the whole team getting ready to hold their own practice, and that bonding exercise served to complement a couple of personnel changes that have enabled Bapst to score consecutive victories over Bucksport, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Foxcroft Academy and Caribou.

“We’ve been able to possess the ball a lot more in the last few games, that’s been a big key for us,” said Smith.

That increased possession also has aided John Bapst’s defense, which has allowed just one goal in the four matches since the Old Town loss. Adam Strang, a sophomore, has been aided in goal by the presence in front of him of one of just three senior starters for the Crusaders, Nick Doucette, who has been switched from striker to stopper.

Junior Ricky Jones has led John Bapst offensively, but has been aided in recent games by sophomore Braeden Sickles, who recently came off the injury list and had a hat trick in Wednesday’s 5-0 win over Caribou at the Dorothea Dix field in Bangor.

Sickles was unable to play at the start of the season due to a heart-related medical concern, but was medically cleared to play two weeks ago and after spending his first two games with the junior varsity was moved up to the big club and has contributed four goals in three games.

“Braeden’s just a sophomore, and before the season started he really didn’t figure into the varsity mix,” said Smith. “So while he was unable to play he helped out with the JVs and he was there every day setting up drills or whatever else he could do to help. Once he was medically cleared to play, he started with the JVs but it became pretty clear that he was ready for the varsity.

“So we called him up last week, and he had a goal in his first game against Mattanawcook and then had the three goals against Caribou. He’s not very big, but he gets right in the goal mouth and does the job. He’s been a big addition.”

The Caribou victory moved 5-3-1 John Bapst just ahead of the Vikings and into eighth place in the Eastern B Heal point standings. Nine teams qualify for postseason play in the division, with John Bapst and Caribou currently battling the likes of Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, Belfast, Mount View of Thorndike and Hermon for the final three playoff berths.

The Crusaders will end their regular season with the toughest part of their schedule, beginning with Saturday’s 1 p.m. homecoming match against an improved Hermon team that is coming off a 3-2 loss to 8-1-1 Presque Isle. John Bapst will play Hermon a second time in its regular-season finale at Pottle Field in Hermon on Oct. 18, with games between those two meetings against MDI, Presque Isle and unbeaten Ellsworth, three teams with a combined record of 20-3-2.

Smith hopes his team’s recent resurgence has prepared the Crusaders for the rugged stretch to come.

“We’re playing mostly sophomores and juniors,” he said. “It’s taken a little while to put the pieces together, but I think we’re starting to solve the puzzle.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...