On top of the play

Keene High’s Graham Swiger gets his head on the ball on this throw-in against Londonderry High Wednesday in the first round of the Division I boys’ soccer tournament.

Last year the Keene High boys’ soccer team rode the Owen Fauth wave, a prodigious scorer who pumped in 22 goals and helped lead a program resurgence that carried the Blackbirds into the Division I quarterfinals.

With Fauth having graduated, prognosticators may have been tempted to temper the Birds’ expectations a bit this season. That would have been a mistake.

“This is a really tight-knit group. We think we have a real shot at contending,” said senior midfielder Trevor Fay after Keene dismantled Londonderry High 2-0 Wednesday in the first round of the Division I tournament under gloomy skies but before an enthusiastic gathering at Scripture Field.

Thus, the sixth-seeded Birds (11-4-2) are right back where they were a year ago — in the Division I quarterfinals. They face a hearty challenge Saturday at perennial powerhouse Hanover High, the No. 3 seed at 14-2-1, though the Marauders barely survived their first-round game Wednesday. After finishing tied 3-3 through regulation and two overtimes, Hanover escaped with a 5-4 advantage in penalty kicks against upset-minded Winnacunnet Regional.

Keene’s mantra the entire season has been team first; that is, concentrate on what it does best rather than obsess over an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Whereas Fauth was the clear go-to striker a year ago, this season Keene’s top two scorers combined for 17 goals, five behind Fauth’s 2018 solo total. No one knows from match-to-match who might step up. It’s all about team.

“It was great to have Owen last year, but it’s also good to have so many guys who can score,” said goalie Charlie Zwierzchowski, whose neon keeper’s jersey was caked in mud just from warmups.

“I would say the whole year we’ve been 11 deep,” added Keene Coach Ben Pierce said. “Even our guys off the bench — everybody has a role to play and everybody knows their role.”

Wednesday was a perfect example, as Keene was both opportunistic and strategic. After a scoreless first half, Pierce and assistant coach Matthew Schmidt moved leading scorer Graham Swiger up top while Fay flipped over to wing from striker. It paid dividends seven minutes into the second half. Sophomore Will Carlisle distributed a beautiful ball to Fay, who was making a run down right wing. Fay took the ball into the right corner, whipped a cross in front of the net, where sophomore Aiden Fauth — Owen’s brother and a sophomore — pounded it home.

“I thought we played with more intensity coming out in the second half and it paid off,” Fay said.

The elegance of the play was still reverberating through the crowd when midfielder Jonas O’Mara suddenly came bombing alone down the middle of the field. Devin McLaughlin had snapped a quick pass to him, and it was O’Mara one-on-one against Londonderry keeper Alex Hufford. Neither got a direct strike on the ball, as they arrived about the same time, but it eluded Hufford and slowly rolled into the net.

“Devin gave me a great pass. I saw (the keeper) coming out and kind of passed it into the goal,” O’Mara said.

It meant Keene had to protect a 2-0 lead for the final 22 minutes, not an unwanted burden, obviously, but a margin that Pierce says scares him more than any other. “They’ve got nothing to lose. They bring everybody. If they get one back, they (have the momentum). That’s why I really wanted that third goal,” he said.

Keene’s defense has been a strength all season, especially it’s poise, and that continued in those final minutes. Although Londonderry pressured, the Birds didn’t buckle and Zwierzchowski turned back the shots that did get through. Zwierzchowski’s biggest scare actually came in the first half, when a shot went through his hands and was headed into the net. Instead, Noah Timmer swooped in and calmly slid his leg between the goal line and the ball, pushing it away.

“Thank goodness for Noah Timmer,” Zwierzchowski said with a grin.

The teams didn’t meet in the regular season, so the Birds knew little about Londonderry (6-6-4) coming in other than most of its matches were tight and low-scoring. The match was mostly technical, with few fouls, no yellow cards and limited physical play. Pierce said the flow of the match reflected Keene’s season-long success.

“We stuck to the game plan on offense and defense,” he said. “Our defense stays still and sees the field because if you’re out of control, it’s going to be a turnover.”

Just for kicks ...

The match started 15 minutes late because the Londonderry bus driver didn’t know about the Route 9 detour in Sullivan and thought he couldn’t pass through. So he turned the bus turned around and went through Peterborough, arriving only 15 minutes before the 3 p.m. start. The officials gave the Lancers a half hour to get ready and warm up. Keene Coach Ben Pierce said that’s happened often to visiting teams this season, and he tells the bus drivers they are allowed to go through the detour. Like so many teams in the Manchester area, no one wants to come to Keene via Route 101 and opt to take Routes 202 and 9. … Though he was kept off the scoring sheet Wednesday, Graham Swiger led Keene with nine goals this season and Jonas O’Mara had eight. Swiger had a bit of a scare when he rolled an ankle after a collision with Londonderry keeper Alex Hufford, but he returned several minutes later. … Seven of the top eight seeds are in the quarterfinals. No. 1 Bedford got a bye, and Nos. 2 through 7 won their matches Wednesday. The only upset was the 8 vs. 9 match, as Concord beat Exeter 1-0. … The Keene-Hanover match Saturday is scheduled to start at 2 p.m. ... Owen Fauth has started 10 of 16 matches as a freshman at Vassar College and has two goals and one assist.