Prepared for anything

  • Frontier’s Tanner Finch, right, goes to the ball against Max Hemingway, of Central, during action last year at Herlihy Field in Whately. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS


Recorder Intern
Published: 11/17/2020 7:06:59 PM

Despite the fact that it is the first fall in his three-year tenure where he did not coach a boys’ soccer game, Evan Horton is in good spirits driving home from Frontier Regional School.

This year has been like no other, and Frontier’s soccer season was postponed until the “Fall II” slate due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. There are still no guarantees of that season happening come February.

Horton hosted offseason workouts for his team this fall, but as of Nov. 4, the Hawks are officially closed for the winter season with cold weather and less daylight available. The team enters their break for the winter remaining hopeful that they’ll be able to come back and play games a few months down the road.

With a season still in question, Horton’s worst fear is that he will not be able to have a final game or banquet with current seniors Gates Tuttle, Matt Jacques, Tanner Finch and Aidan Hernandez.

“When I left practice (last week), I really wondered, ‘Is this the last time I see them?’” Horton wondered. “When we lose our final game on the road or play the last game of the season, we get to have that final bus ride back or the banquet. We’re not having any of that this year.”

For Tuttle, a second-year varsity player, the feeling that he might have practiced for the final time at Frontier was a bit surreal.

“The seniors definitely didn’t take it for granted,” he said. “I know that I left my best soccer out on the field and since this year is my final year, it makes it that much more important to me.”

Though Tuttle has seemingly come to terms with the current circumstances, Finch is more frustrated by the uncertainty ahead.

“Since we’re not playing soccer for three months after these practices, it definitely makes them less intense,” Finch offered.

During their final practice last week, Horton emphasized the importance of keeping in shape and trying to practice the sport throughout the winter, even if he cannot be there to coach. As a pharmacist by day, however, he also wanted them to make sure they were following the health guidelines laid out by the state of Massachusetts.

“I told them to control what they control. In this case, it’s being safe and healthy,” the Frontier coach said. “The better Franklin County does with COVID cases being reported, the more likely it is that we get the green light to play our season.”

Tuttle said he’ll be working out at King’s Gym in Greenfield along with fellow seniors Hernandez and Finch, in hopes of staying in shape for the upcoming season.

“We’re just trying to better ourselves in case the season does happen,” said Tuttle.

Working in the healthcare industry offers Horton a unique perspective on the current situation. He said it has helped him cope with the postponement of the soccer season.

“Given the health concerns of the virus, it is disappointing, but you always have to remember that this is high school boys’ soccer in the grand scheme of things,” he said with a laugh. “That said, if I was 17 right now, I know I would probably be breaking every rule imaginable, so I don’t blame the kids for wanting to play.”

Admittedly, Frontier put together a disappointing 2019 season on the soccer pitch. The Red Hawks went 5-10-2 in the regular season and missed the Western Mass. tournament, just one year removed from reaching the Division III final. Adversity was a common theme during last year’s campaign, and Horton felt there was a failure to deal with it correctly.

“I let our team down by not handling it well,” he explained. “I felt I responded too aggressively to the players in 2019. In 2018, that was the type of coaching the guys responded well to and it worked. Fast forward to last year, I responded the same way to a struggling team, and it failed.”

With a new season and a pandemic still in full effect, Horton said he sees this as an opportunity for a fresh start.

“I came into this year with the goal of not repeating mistakes I made last year,” he said. “There are guys that were on last year’s team and I’m sure they are leery about me.”

Tuttle and Finch, two seniors that played for Horton last year, felt there were problems in 2019, but said the blame can not be solely placed on Horton.

“The whole attitude of the team went down after a loss,” said Finch. “It usually led to yelling for the next couple days of practice and with 12 seniors, a few of them not getting along, you can’t blame him [Horton] for all of that.”

Though there were many factors that led to Frontier’s setback, Horton placed the blame on himself for the failed season. He does feel he learned something very valuable, however.

“You lose one guy, and it changes the dynamic of the team,” he said. “Even if it is a guy that you don’t think is super involved in key things like team attitude and leadership, it matters, and last year, we just fell apart.”

The seniors said they have noticed a change in Horton’s coaching style, and it has resonated well with the rest of the team.

“The big change is that he listens to his senior leaders,” Tuttle said. “During scrimmages, he sits back and lets us take the flow of things.”

Horton, in an effort to help better coach his team, brought on ex-players Peter Bronke, Tim Barrington and Connor Bagdon as assistant coaches for the coming season. All three were part of the 2018 squad and have the respect of many of the younger players on the Frontier roster. It’s a move that has further shown the players that Horton is dedicated to adapting the program.

“I really appreciated him bringing those guys back,” said Tuttle. “Last year was a shaky year and I think him bringing back those great players shows he does not want to repeat those mistakes.”

With 2019 now in the rearview mirror, Tuttle and Finch are leading this year’s team along with Jacques, Hernandez and juniors Peyton Sladeski and Cairn Bright. Aside from a few returning players, it is a completely new team, and Finch wants to show that last year was no more than a blip on the radar.

“I want to show that last year was not Frontier soccer,” he said. “We graduated 12 seniors, but I want to show that we can be a lot better.”

Finch said he leads by example during practice. Since it is his senior year, he wants to make sure everyone is on the same page.

“I want everyone to do good,” he began. “I would like to have a good season in my final year at Frontier, so I take it very seriously during practice.”

Tuttle said the most important thing is to not only lead his team through practices, but also support them through the pandemic.

“I lead with my work ethic and knowledge of the sport. I hope they pick up on it,” he said. “Last year, the seniors, most of the time, would tease you if you did something wrong so I try very hard to make sure that I don’t follow in their footsteps.”

On top of the already bizarre circumstances, Horton has had to rebuild a squad that graduated 12 seniors. That includes three of the team’s four starting defenders as well as their goalkeeper. Of the 26 current players on Frontier’s roster, only eight of them have varsity experience and 12 are brand-new as freshmen.

Regardless of the situation, the 40 year-old head coach is happy that practices were a success for the team this fall.

“We were told that we could stop practices at any point,” said Horton. “We chose to keep going and no one has been sick. Even better, we have had such a positive response from the parents and players because they finally get to leave the house and do something.”

The practices kept the players involved, but Horton said he tried to make sure they were not repetitive or boring.

“Keeping motivation up is the most difficult part,” he explained. “As the offseason went on, we really hit our stride around the middle of the six weeks. But for the last two weeks, it seemed like the energy was sapped out of us both due to bad weather as well as some sadness that the practices were ending.”

Offseason practices ran twice a week, something that posed a challenge as the Frontier team had grown accustomed to sessions happening five days a week during normal times.

“When you’re practicing five days a week, you can focus on certain things that need to be improved,” Horton said. “During these practices, we’re just trying to get them involved and moving the ball around.

Rebuilding the roster has been a slow process for Horton, who admitted that the first practices shook out a lot of rust.

“Most of the guys were out of shape and our touch was off,” he said. “But we’ve had a lot of juniors that have stepped up for the team, including Peyton Sladeski and Cairn Bright.”

Tuttle, like Horton, loves the leadership skills that Sladeski and Bright have brought to the table. The two juniors have progressed nicely throughout Frontier’s program, and Tuttle is excited to see what happens for the pair over the next two years.

“Cairn and Peyton are great players,” said Tuttle. “I have no doubt that Cairn will be the lead captain for Frontier next year. But on the flip side, Peyton’s work ethic is amazing. If anyone is going to pick up on somebody’s work ethic, it’s his.”

Finch said he’s optimistic about the future of the team but really wants to see what Hernandez can do as the team’s new goalkeeper.

“He is quite lanky, which is good for goalies,” Finch said. “He had some nice one-on-one saves that I was quite surprised he made.”

The most promising long-term aspect for the Red Hawks comes in the form of the team’s 12 new freshmen. With talented players such as Devin Niles, Jack Storm and Chanhee Son, Horton said he’s enthused about the future, but wants to make sure that the upperclassmen get attention in this very strange year.

“The goal for us has been not focusing on just the underclassmen out of respect for the upperclassmen,” he said. “I’d be lying though if I didn’t say I was excited for the prospects we have in this freshman class.”

Thanks to the support and leadership from the upperclassmen, Horton said that the team’s competitive level grew over the past few weeks. He is looking forward to seeing if that translates in game situations.

“I started the season with little expectation that we would actually play,” he said. “But now, with how we have progressed, I’m going to be really disappointed if we don’t actually have a season because I really want to see what they can do on the field.”

Tuttle, like his head coach, remains optimistic that a soccer season will happen for the Red Hawks.

“With winter coming along, there won’t be a lot of opportunities for people to gather,” he said. “I’m very hopeful that we will have it.”

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