Last year, after the Keene High boys’ soccer team went 11-5-2 and recorded its first playoff win in seven years, the Blackbirds graduated a class of eight seniors. This list included All-Division I first team forward Owen Fauth — who is currently starting at Vassar College — honorable mention back David Erunski, and another defensive leader in Aiden Bartlett.
Naturally, multiple members of this year’s senior class — such as co-captains Noah Timmer and Trevor Fay and newcomer Brian Langevin — have stepped up to fill bigger roles. But through Keene’s first three games — all victories — the highlights have been coming from the junior class.
That was certainly the case Tuesday against Merrimack, as forward Graham Swiger scored the game’s lone goal in the 20th minute (off an assist from fellow junior Devin McLaughlin), and keeper Charlie Zwierzchowski finished with six saves to record his second shutout of the season.
“I think … the whole junior class really, is very important,” Zwierzchowski said. “There were like 17 of us that tried out and I think there’s about 10 of us on the team. I think we’re really important to this team.”
The goal was Swiger’s second of the season, which accounts for almost half of the Birds’ five goals thus far. The rest have come from midfielder Jonas O’Mara, who has not only proven himself a strong two-way threat, but has also earned an extra role as a co-captain.
“We really rely on those guys,” Keene Coach Ben Pierce said. “When you look at that class, I think they’re bringing a lot of soccer IQ to the game. These guys really understand the game of soccer, but they also can really compete, and they’re at the size now where they’re getting to be one of the bigger guys on the field.”
O’Mara’s fellow co-captain Fay brings a speed and athleticism to the forward position that promises to lead to many scoring opportunities this season. But thus far, Swiger has shown a knack for being at the right place at the right time with the right kick.
This showed itself with his goal on Tuesday.
After a shot was saved by the Merrimack keeper, McLaughlin fought for the ball with a defender, then booted it straight up in the air to keep it inbounds and keep the offensive chance alive. Swiger corralled it off his thigh, then kicked it mid-bounce to send it right past the goalie.
“It’s definitely a big deal, coming up from the sophomore [season] and being one of the leaders on the team,” Swiger said.
Zwierzchowski, in his third year as the starting goalkeeper, was quick to praise the team’s backs for providing a solid line in front of him. In particular, he mentioned the play of Timmer — who made the move from midfield to defense — and Langevin — who has taken on a big defensive role in his first year with the team.
Defense has proven more vital this season than it did at this point last season. Led by Fauth, Keene averaged 4.75 goals during its season-opening, four-game win streak; this year, the Birds are averaging 1.67 goals through three games.
“Even when we had Owen up top, we still had to have that strong defensive line because they’re always coming at us,” Zwierzchowski said. “I think defense is just as important as offense.”
Zwierzchowski, O’Mara, Swiger and McLaughlin were the only members of their class to play on the varsity roster last year. That experience has paid dividends, both in their skills on the field and the mindset they bring to the season as a whole.
While last year’s senior class saw the team win just four games through its freshman and sophomore seasons, this year’s juniors have seen the Birds win 16 games, make the playoffs twice and win a playoff game.
“I think their expectations for the upperclassmen are pretty high, which is great, they should have that,” Pierce said. “I think that they feel like they can come out and compete against any team in the state, and they should feel like that.”
Now that they’ve tasted success, the thought of making the playoffs no longer seems like a far-off fantasy, and higher ambitions can be felt on the horizons.
“I’m thinking the goal is the same. We’re gonna try to [clinch] a playoff home game, and hoping, if we can, to win a state championship,” Zwierzchowski said. “That’s the ultimate dream, but we’ll see.”