During a season that seemed destined to go by at breakneck speed, getting an unexpected break early on may have helped the Manchester Essex girls soccer team take their game to the next level.
In spite of the final tally, Hornets coach Luke Cosgrove saw some flaws in his team’s approach during a 2-0 win over Triton on Oct. 10. With the postponement of the Hornets’ next two games (at Georgetown, originally set for Oct 12, and versus Pentucket, initially set for Oct. 17), Manchester Essex got the chance to iron out any kinks in their game thanks to a 10-day span between games.
“We played our second game - a 2-0 win over Triton - and I don’t think we played well at all,” explained Cosgrove. “We had two games suspended and got two weeks with no pressure to play games. We got to work on a lot of things. At that point of the season, it was kind like getting a new preseason. We talked about things and practiced coincidentally, and then we played Newburyport and Amesbury, and I thought we played tremendously.”
The break was an unexpected bonus during a fall season that got off to a late start and included a condensed schedule due to COVID pandemic restrictions. The result after coming out of the unofficial bye was a scoreless tie with the Clippers on Oct 21 and a 1-1 tie against a solid Amesbury squad on Oct. 24.
“Those two games so far have been the key,” says Cosgrove. “I have confidence if we can compete with those two teams, there’s no reason we can’t compete the rest of the season.”
While getting an unexpected second preseason to work on things was a beneficial change, it was not the only change the Hornets have had to adapt to this season, earning a 2-1-2 record to this point. Changes to the game like mandated face masks and no contact between players on the field, no headers allowed during games and free kicks replacing throw-ins after the ball goes out of bounds may all have helped the team in some ways.
“They’re strict on not having physical contact during games, and our style of play is we like to pass the ball, we don’t like to get into a wrestling match,” explains Cosgrove. “The other big one is throw-ins when the ball goes out of bounds; some teams can throw it in, and that can be a huge weapon. This year, it has to be kicked in. Those kinds of things suit the way we play.”
The way the Hornets have traditionally played is by outscoring the opposition. Over the first few games, Manchester Essex has had to alter their approach, however: Two of the top scorers expected back for 2020 opted out for the season, and a handful of others graduated in 2019. As a result, the Hornets have had to lean on experience in goal and on defense to stay competitive while key players heal and the offense picks up.
Goaltender Leilani Brown has set the tone for the team, with the senior allowing only two goals over five contests so far this fall. That confidence spills over to the defenders playing in front of Brown, including seniors Bradlee Brooks and Ashley Flood.
“Leilani has been as calm as can be, and that makes the defenders in front of her feel more comfortable,” says Cosgrove. “When you have a really good goalie back there, everybody else plays with more freedom. Then, our defenders have done really well back there, too.”
The 10-day break between games should help boost the offense going forward as well.
“We were able to focus on getting everyone organized and everyone getting fit,” says Cosgrove. “Now that we’re playing again, I think we will start to score a lot more goals.”
The Hornets’ four senior captains have helped to guide this team through a season in which they face a number of unfamiliar elements on and off the field. The support and guidance of players like Flood, Dasa Hase, Madison Lawler and Elizabeth Loring has been crucial in 2020.
“You couldn’t put a price on it because there are a lot of moving parts,” explains Cosgrove. “We are used to coaching all of the players in combined training sessions, now we can’t have large groups and have to break things up. Basically, they do the talking for the coaches - especially on the sidelines - when we can’t have big groups. Those guys have been able to do that, as well as showing the juniors and sophomores the way to do things the year after and the year after that.”
For now, the Hornets will focus on playing out the rest of the regular season over the next week or two. ME was slated to play North Reading on Oct. 28, and will host Hamilton-Wenham on Halloween for Senior Day. The regular season schedule ends against Rockport in Rockport on Nov. 4, with the postponed games possibly played in the days following the match against the Vikings.
“It’s always a great game for the seniors, and Hamilton-Wenham is a tough team,” says Cosgrove. “Every season, we play them twice - we win one, they win one. Now we only get to play them once, this is our only chance, so I’m looking forward to that.
He adds: “If you ask the kids, the rivalry with Rockport, the kids will circle that one. That’s never an easy game for us.”