NORTH KINGSTOWN – The Skippers boys soccer team has been in this position before, and they’re hopeful that history doesn’t always have to repeat itself. The No. 1 team in Division I for the second time in three seasons, the Skippers are looking to prove that 2017’s early exit was a fluke.
NK lost to Classical in the 2017 quarterfinals on a shootout, ending what they thought would be a run to the state title game. After a slightly down season in ‘18, the Skippers are back at the top of the table following a 12-1-2 regular season record that culminated in a 0-0 draw against La Salle on Monday.
“To me, this was a playoff game as far as the intensity goes,” NK head coach Paul Fanning said. “It’s a game where any little mistake means you could be behind. The game didn’t mean anything as far as seeding goes for us, so I’m really happy that the focus was still there. The pride was still there on senior night.”
There were few scoring chances in the season finale. NK outshot the visiting Rams 10-9, and had a pair of juicy chances in the first half that didn’t lead to any goals. John Schultz had a shot on goal, while Owen Ennis came the closest to scoring on a shot that necessitated a kick-save by the Ram goalkeeper.
You couldn’t tell that the Skippers had already sewn up the No. 1 seed prior to Monday’s contest by watching the action on the field. Both teams played physical, with the Skippers taking home a trio of yellow cards for their part in the battle.
“It shows the players the focus they need to have,” Fanning said. “How hard these games are physically. We have players who have played all season getting cramps, asking off. It’s a really good check of who’s ready to go.”
Fanning says that the 0-0 draw was one of the best efforts he’s seen his Skippers put up against a La Salle team. Led by eight seniors, the Skippers wanted to bring home the win alongside some Senior Night pride.
The upperclassmen on the team are Daniel Kennedy, Cam Tuttle, Keiran Wilkinson, Jake Froberg, Decker Thompson, Jake Libutti, Riley LaLonde and Caleb Wagner. They were freshmen in Fanning’s first year, and the group has grown alongside their head coach.
“I was a freshman coach when they came in, so that’s really easy for me to track,” Fanning said. “I had coached in the area for a while, so I knew a lot of the guys coming up. We knew they were gonna be good players. We just tried to take our time with them when they were younger. It’s been fun to watch them grow.
“As sophomores, a bunch of them were on a team that was No. 1 and lost right away. Tough lesson, hopefully they learned it.”
Two years removed from that heartbreak, the Skippers will have plenty of time to sit back and reflect before the D-I tournament starts. Play won’t begin until next Friday, and as the No. 1 seed, the Skippers won’t have to play until the quarterfinals.
“We’re gonna try to do some friendlies just to keep the routine of the season going,” Fanning said of the long break. “Once you find out who you’re playing, that helps a lot. Really makes the focus pretty clear.
“We’ll take a break for a couple days. We’ve actually done yoga a couple times. We have yoga on Wednesday. They like the mental break.”
It figures to be an ultra-competitive tournament. NK was one of four teams to win at least nine games in the regular season, alongside South Kingstown, La Salle and Bishop Hendricken. Defending state champions Tolman went 8-4-2.
“I think it’s gonna be real tough,” Fanning said. “There’s a bunch of teams that can beat anybody. There’s some tricky matchups. I’m looking forward to seeing who we get. You really have to be sharp.”
In addition to the tough opponents, the playing surfaces are a factor that draws Fanning’s attention. The Skippers now have turf on their home field – where they will play their quarterfinal match – and the semifinal venue is EGHS, another turf field. If NK gets to the state finals, they will then have to play on grass at Rhode Island College.
“You saw people slipping tonight,” on the artificial surface, said Fanning. “I don’t know what that’s about. East Greenwich has had turf for a while. With all these turf fields, you start to see that they play differently. You have to be ready for how it’s playing; if it’s playing fast, if it’s slick, whatever. Some of the dimensions are smaller than others.”