BANGOR — A sluggish preseason left members of the Bangor High School boys soccer team uncertain as to whether they would remain among the top Class A programs in the state this fall.

Several losses in exhibition matches fostered a touch of angst about living up to the recent legacy that had produced one state title, two Eastern A crowns and a third trip to the regional final in the previous four years.

But that was exhibition season, after all, and the games didn’t count.

“Every year we lose a lot, that’s part and parcel of this program,” said Bangor coach David Patterson. “We graduated 14 players last year, and we’re going to lose 16 this year. It happens every year, so every year there’s a new group, and the big challenge in preseason and early in the season always is to find out who they are and to develop that identity.”

And from those early-season travails has emerged late-season success, leaving Bangor undefeated at 16-0-1 and poised to face Portland at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Falmouth High School for the state championship.

“I think a lot of people definitely doubted what we could do this year,” said senior striker Luke Hetterman, who scored the game-winning goal against Brunswick in Wednesday’s double-overtime EM final. “But I knew we all had it in us. We’ve improved so much this season, and now we’re peaking at the right time and there’s no better time to do that than right now.”

Bangor’s regular season began with four straight one-goal victories, all close calls but victories that nevertheless reflected growing team cohesion and an understanding of evolving roles.

“They did that slowly, slower than I was hoping for,” said Patterson. “We struggled a bit, we were on the right side of the results, but we weren’t playing particularly well. But then more than anything, it wasn’t on the soccer field but it was off the soccer field where they came together as a group. In practice they had more fun, and everybody relaxed a bit and that really translated onto the field and we started to click a little bit.”

That on-field growth improvement also stemmed from a strong soccer acumen that isn’t just represented by their 48-2-2 record over the last three seasons. Seventeen of the 26 players on the roster were honor-roll students last spring, with six earning highest honors.

“They call soccer the players’ game because it’s so fluid that players have to figure things out on the field by themselves constantly,” Patterson said. “These guys have shown themselves able to handle that part of the game really well.”

Perhaps nowhere on the field has Bangor improved more this fall than on defense, where three first-year starters in Andy Prusaitis, Bobby Winchell and goalie Jesse Perkins joined veterans Adam King and Jack Stacey to help Bangor score four shutouts in its last five regular-season matches.

And with senior Phil Frost, Hetterman and junior Connor Griffin forming a dangerous offensive tandem and seniors Jacques Larochelle — out early in the season with knee tendinitis — and Seth Freudenberger and junior Alex Shi growing together in the midfield, the Rams have stepped up their precision level during postseason play.

“We’ve gone out hard every day in practice and put our all into it knowing that every little thing we do during the year makes us better,” said Larochelle. “Every time we play together it helps us trust each other more and that makes us better on the field.”

A 5-0 victory over Morse in the semifinals represented perhaps the team’s best all-around effort of the season, and a 2-1 double-overtime victory over Brunswick in the EM title game provided the ultimate gut check, as Bangor rallied from a 1-0 second-half deficit to avenge a loss to the Dragons’ in last year’s final and advance to the state final for the third time in five years.

“This team struggled a little early in the year to find out what their identity was, and through those struggles early in the year I think they developed some character,” said Patterson. “They didn’t have everything their own way early in the year, and that stood them in good stead (Wednesday). I was very proud of the way they came back. They didn’t panic, they remained composed, and stayed with it all the way.”

Now comes one final test, against a veteran Portland team making its first trip to the states since 1994.

It’s a test Bangor’s elder statesmen have pursued for two years, since Scarborough edged the Rams 1-0 in overtime at the 2008 state championship match.

“I’d say the biggest motivational force was when we made it to states my sophomore year,” said Frost. “Just wanting to get back there was what drove us because this is our senior year and our last chance to do this.”

“It’s extremely important,” added Larochelle, “because this time I want to finish it off and win that game. I want to be the last team standing in Class A.”

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...