Upstarts Frontier, Nipmuc were unlikely foes

  • Frontier’s Zach Hamilton (10) and Belchertown’s Even Fournier, battle for control of the ball Sunday during the WMass Division III boys’ soccer championship game at Westfield State University. for the recorder/J. Anthony Roberts

  • Frontier celebrates Ethan LaFleur’s game-winning goal vs. Belchertown goalie Tanner Clark Sunday during second-half action of the WMass Division III boys’ soccer championship game at Westfield State University. FOR THE RECORDER/J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

  • Frontier’s Noah Jacques (4) heads the ball across the field and away from the Frontier net Sunday during the WMass Division III boys’ soccer championship at Westfield State University. for the recorder/J. Anthony Roberts

Recorder Staff
Published: 11/15/2016 10:42:11 PM

Tonight’s MIAA State Division III Boys’ Soccer semifinal features two teams that would not have been the favorites to still be alive in the tourney during the third week of November.

Defending WMass champion Frontier Regional School (13-3-4) began its title defense as the fourth seed in the western Mass. Division III tourney, while Nipmuc Regional High School (17-4-1) of Upton entered the central Mass. Division III field as the fifth seed.

Both squads defied the odds and went on to win their sectional titles and will meet in tonight’s state semifinals at 7:15 p.m. at Westfield State University. The winner will move on to play in the state championship game against the winner of tonight’s other state semifinal game between Wayland High School and Medway High School.

What has made Frontier’s championship run even more improbable this season has been the turnover the Red Hawks endured following last year’s WMass title run, which ended in the state semifinals with a 1-0 loss to Douglas High School. Frontier lost 13 players to graduation and entered this season with just four returning starters. It’s a storyline that has been covered ad nauseam during the Red Hawks’ WMass title run but bears repeating, given that coach Dale Totman had to completely reload his varsity squad.

Even with the turnover, the Red Hawks had another successful season, winning the Schmid Division and carrying that momentum into the postseason, where wins over top-seeded Hampshire Regional High School (2-1 in penalty kicks) in the semifinals, and third-seeded and perennial powerhouse Belchertown High School (2-1) in the championship highlighted their run.

The majority of the retooling came on offense, where Connor Hamilton and Chad Parent combined to form a lethal combination in 2015 that led the Red Hawks in scoring and combined to score roughly 130 points in their careers at Frontier. That left some huge shoes to fill. Ethan LaFleur, who missed most of last season with an injury, returned for his junior season this fall and stepped up huge. After scoring 25 goals as a freshman on the junior varsity team, LaFleur netted 16 goals to go with six assists this season to lead the Red Hawks. Zach Hamilton finished with seven goals and six assists, Ian Newman had seven goals and two assists, and Dan Bronke finished with six goals and three assists. The foursome combined on just four goals and seven assists all of last season.

“We lost all of our scoring power from last year,” Totman said. “We knew that our defense was going to be strong, but the question was will other players step up for our offense. Honestly, they have done a great job. And Ethan, he just keeps getting better as the season progresses. He is playing his best soccer right now. The two goals he scored against Belchertown were amazing.”

Because of the offensive turnover, the Red Hawks concentrated on building from the back on up at the start of the season.

“We were returning two starters in the back,” Totman said. “We knew that was probably the strength of our team and we just built it from there.”

The result was a Red Hawks defense that allowed more than one goal in a game just twice. First-year starting goaltender Peter Bronke has pitched 11 shutouts, and has proven his postseason value, helping stop a penalty kick in the second half of the Red Hawks’ quarterfinal game against Pope Francis High School (which Frontier went on to win in overtime), then coming up big on two occasions in the semifinal shootout win over Hampshire. He continued his strong play against the Orioles and will have to continue to be a wall in the back if Frontier is going to advance to its first-ever state championship game.

“We knew coming into the season that Peter was going to be a good goalie, but being just a sophomore, we didn’t know what level he would perform at in his first year,” Totman explained. “He has played at a very high level.

“Our back four are very, very strong, but we play team defense,” Totman continued. “We like to say that when we don’t have the ball, everyone defends, and when we do have the ball, everyone attacks.”

Frontier’s defense will have its hands full with a Nipmuc offense full of star power. The Warriors, who wear green, white and gold, have five players who have scored 13 or more points on the season. Jackson Bukunt (12 goals, five assists) and Alex Ott (nine goals, eight assists) lead the team with 17 points apiece, while Dawson Zach (eight goals, seven assists), Jonas Walter (nine goals, five assists) and Jake Szymko (10 goals, three assists) are just behind.

Nipmuc has shown off the offense during its tournament run, scoring 23 goals in its four tournament games. Nipmuc opened the tournament with a 7-0 win over Auburn High School and then beat Holy Name, 4-2, in the quarterfinals. That was followed up with a 9-1 win over Millbury High School in the semifinals, before its 3-2 win over Grafton High School in the finals. In that game, Nipmuc led 3-0 at halftime but hung on for the win after Grafton scored twice in the second half. Totman said that he is not overly concerned with what Nipmuc does, but rather is focusing on what his team does well.

“Last year, we had the mentality that we were fearing (Douglas) rather than focusing on our game,” he explained. “That has been our theme this postseason, that we focus on what we do well. We can outpossess a team and dominate that way, or if we need to sit back and defend and counter attack, we can do that very well, too.”

One year after a narrow loss in the state semifinals, Totman and his Red Hawks find themselves back with a chance at redemption. It’s a situation he believes his team is ready to take advantage of.

“I really felt like we had a great chance to win that game last year,” Totman said. “We kind of learned last year, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ And we feel hungrier this year. Winning that first western Mass. title was such a great feeling last year, you couldn’t help but feel satisfied. This year we want more, we want a state title.”

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