BANGOR, Maine —- Pete McDonnell wasn’t sure what to expect when he was introduced to high school soccer in the Queen City last summer.
He grew up in an Irish soccer family — his father and grandfather founded a soccer club in 1975 — and went on to play at the National University of Ireland at Galway. He then earned a UEFA B coaching diploma and coached with Republic of Ireland regional teams.
After moving to the United States in 2010, McDonnell coached club teams in Massachusetts and New Jersey before he and wife Baylee moved in June to her native Orono.
McDonnell soon was hired as boys varsity coach at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and what has followed surely qualifies as a most successful experience this fall. But not only for his team, but up and down Broadway where the boys’ soccer teams at John Bapst, Bangor Christian and Bangor High School enter postseason play with a combined 39-2-1 record.
That doesn’t even count reigning Class A girls state champion Bangor High, which is 14-0.
“People look at this area sometimes from the south and say, ‘I’m not going there because it’s too far up and we always beat them,’” said McDonnell, whose Crusaders are 13-1 and seeded first in Class B North entering Tuesday’s final day of regular-season play, “but the records just show you that there’s real quality on the ground here, real quality.”
While the three Bangor boys teams are based less than three miles apart, they don’t face each other because of their different enrollment classifications.
Bangor, with more than 1,100 students, competes against the state’s largest schools in Class A, while John Bapst has approximately 500 students and Bangor Christian plays in the small-school Class D with fewer than 100 students.
Yet there are common denominators, particularly an off-season commitment to the sport from players from each team through such local clubs as Seacoast United Blackbear, River City and the Bangor Soccer Club as well as the Seacoast United Mariners based in the Brunswick-Topsham area.
“Ten of our 11 starters play soccer year-round and it’s not an accident with how they’ve played this year,” said first-year Bangor High boys soccer coach Garth Berenyi, a veteran referee and coach at the club and scholastic levels. “They’re mentally prepared, they’ve got the touch and the guys support one another.”
While the club season provides participating players added experience, it also creates a unique challenge for at least one of the local coaches.
“It’s very difficult to even run a practice at times because you have kids that play at a high level year round, and then we had at least three kids who came out this year who had never played soccer,” said 19th-year Bangor Christian head coach Aaron Wilcox. “Just trying to balance that out is a challenge.
“We have to do basic stuff to bring kids along, but then you have to get more advanced in terms of movement and positioning to get to the other kids. It’s like being in a classroom where you’ve just got to reach all the kids even if they’re at different levels.”
Wilcox’s resume suggests a mission accomplished as far as meshing the talents of players from different competitive backgrounds.
Bangor Christian has won six Class D state championships under his leadership and was the first boys program in Maine to win five in a row (from 2009 through 2013) — a run that included a 64-match winning streak.
Since then the Patriots have reached the 2014 state final and 2015 Class D North championship match.
This year second-ranked Bangor Christian is 14-0, having outscored its opponents 77-6 with nine shutouts.
“There’s a lot better ball movement, passing and a lot of people involved in the scoring, we’re not relying on one or two people to do all the scoring,” said Wilcox. “It’s been really spread out and that’s made a huge difference.”
BC features a young but experienced lineup after graduating one senior from last year’s team that fell 2-1 to Fort Fairfield — the 2015 state champion — in the regional final.
The Patriots, who start two seniors, eight juniors and a sophomore, are led by talented junior Tyler Welch and team captain Josh Palmeter, a senior midfielder.
“Most of the juniors had been playing since they were freshmen,” said Wilcox, whose team will have to get past the likes of undefeated Fort Fairfield and Woodland in order to return to the state final for the first time in two years.
“We had a really slow start for various reasons but are doing really well now,” Wilcox said. “The ball movement has gotten a lot better, these guys have been coming together.”
Bangor High is similarly youthful, with five seniors on its 21-player varsity roster.
But many of the younger players already have considerable varsity experience in addition to their time in club play, putting these Rams in position to contend for their first Class A state championship since 2010.
“The guys are hungry,” said Berenyi. “They’re playing hard, they’re training hard, and they know they can play well against the really good teams. They know success is ours if we do what we need to do and they’re on board with that. The chemistry is good and mentally they’re stronger than I’ve ever seen them play.”
Bangor concluded its regular season Monday with a 1-1 tie at defending state champion Lewiston, leaving the second-ranked Rams (12-1-1) riding an 11-match (10-0-1) unbeaten streak.
“Out of all the four years I’ve played here we have the most club players who play year-round, so there are a lot of really technical players,” said Bangor midfielder Carson Atherley, a Brown University-bound senior and four-year starter who missed the Rams’ lone loss to Edward Little of Auburn on Sept. 10 due to a college visit.
“We have a lot of smart players who are good on the ball, maybe not as big in size but fantastic technically so I expected the level of play to be high,” said Atherley, whose father Scott is the women’s head coach at the University of Maine.
Other key players for the Rams are juniors Garth Berenyi and Jacob Berenyi, the coach’s sons, and senior goalie George Payne, who has helped Bangor compile seven shutouts while outscoring its opponents 46-8.
“We’ve definitely grown a lot over the course of the year,” said the younger Garth Berenyi. “Every training we really make sure we come focused on getting better each day. We evaluate ourselves at a percentage of how well we think we are compared to who we think we can be at the end. We’ve worked on that, and now we’re playing better than we have all season to be sure.”
John Bapst is led by a 13-player senior class that has made McDonnell’s transition to his new program much smoother.
“At first I was definitely apprehensive and certainly didn’t hold any expectations as to what might happen in Year 1,” he said. “It was just getting on the ground and wiping the slate clean from my end as far as not doing anything really complicated and then finding out very quickly that these are smart young men who were able to adapt to my philosophy rather than me adapt to their play.”
That philosophy places an emphasis on possession.
“It’s very, very borne on keeping the ball, certainly from the goalkeeper through the thirds of the field into the strikers and then not giving that ball away,” McDonnell said. “That’s not an easy task for players at a high level and my apprehension was that I didn’t know what these players were going to be like but they’re very smart young men and that’s a credit to their school and their families that they took to this.”
The Crusaders, who last won a Class B regional title a decade ago, feature a premier scorer in senior Alvaro Valls. The native Spaniard, who transferred to John Bapst from Medomak Valley of Waldoboro this year, has 21 regular-season goals.
Other key players include seniors Paul Branch, Owen Lynch and Tom Carmack, a goalie who has helped Bapst post five shutouts while outscoring its foes 47-10.
“One thing that’s really helped this season be as good as it can be is that it’s a one-team, one-program culture,” said McDonnell. “Everyone looks out for each other and they’ve really bought into that culture.”
It’s a culture that seemingly has spread the length of Broadway — or is it Soccer Street?
“Certainly with the record of the three schools,” said McDonnell, “people have to take notice that there are good young players here.”