Redmen, Burns, Opening Eyes In The MVCSep 25, 2014 08:16PM ● By Rick Spencer
Tewksbury High goaltender Rafael Perez and defender Kyle Paquette (12) have been two of the main reasons that the TMHS boys' soccer team is off to a 4-0-4 start.
If Tewksbury High boys soccer coach Chris Burns ever gets tired of being a school teacher, maybe he ought to consider a career in medicine.
Judging by the near-miraculous job Burns has done resuscitating the waning pulse of the TMHS boys soccer program over the past three seasons, the third-year Redmen coach might want to try his luck in the emergency room, or maybe on the back of an ambulance.
Burns, a Lowell native, took the reins of the Tewksbury High boys’ soccer team when it was on life support in the fall of 2012, and in just over two years he has turned it into the feel-good story of the Merrimack Valley Conference. After battling to a scoreless draw with Dracut High on Thursday, the Redmen are still unbeaten at 4-0-4 through eight games, and have their sights set firmly on winning the Merrimack Valley Conference small school championship in 2014.
“This year, in terms of our results, we’ve had some luck. We’ve played well and we’ve played poorly, but we’ve still got good results,” Burns said. “It’s gonna stop at some point. We’ve been sneaking up on people and that’s gonna stop. But right now we have that advantage where other teams aren’t ready for the way we play and the fact that we’ve gotten so much better.”
Burns accepted the unenviable task of resurrecting the TMHS boys’ soccer team at the lowest point in the program’s history. After the founder of the sport at TMHS, legendary coach Steve Levine, retired and left behind a gigantic pair of virtually unfillable shoes in 2010, Tom Carpenito took over and lasted just one blow-out riddled year (the team went 3-13-2) before moving on. What Burns found on his first day on the job was a program that was virtually on life support.
“We started out with a little over 30 kids (at tryouts) between the varsity and the (junior varsity) teams combined,” Burns said. “And with injuries and a few kids quitting, we got to the point where, by midseason, we were down to 28 kids. Our jayvee team was playing with no subs.”
The rebuilding process was not painless. In fact, the team went winless (0-14-4) in Burns’ first season in 2012. But the new coach focused on a promising group of underclassmen who exhibited a strong soccer skill set and a will to work hard on improving their game.
“The first year was a disaster, but by the next season we had 35 kids in the program, and this year we have 50,” Burns said. “The kids are sticking with the program now.”
There was a glimmer of hope as Tewksbury improved to 5-10-3 last year, and this year has been nothing short of remarkable. The Redmen have shocked the MVC with their 4-0-4 start, and already there’s talk about qualifying for the state tournament and winning the MVC small school championship.
“I have to say that I’m somewhat surprised that the results have gone our way, but I’m not surprised that we’re playing well,” Burns added. “I knew there was talent, young talent, and I knew that if they just bought in, which they have, we’d be okay. I think we’re right where we should be at this point in the season.”
Thursday’s 0-0 tie with Dracut was the team’s third straight scoreless draw. Counting a 2-0 win over Andover on Sept. 18, Tewksbury’s defense has not allowed a goal in four straight games.
The team’s defensive success has been aided by the unplanned emergence of sophomore goalkeeper Rafael Perez. “Raf’ started the season behind returning starter Andrew Loiselle, but took over the job when Loiselle suffered a wrist injury in the third game of the season. Through five games as a starter, Perez has recorded four clean sheets.
“He (Perez) has done really well,” Burns said. “He’s kind of a surprise starter at this point because of Andrew’s injury. But he’s had shutouts in four of his first five games. He’s a good athlete, he’s a basketball player as well. He’s got good instincts and he’s learning.”
To be fair, Perez has been well-supported by an experienced back line that features two outstanding center backs. One is senior captain Kyle Paquette, whose main claim to fame comes from being the TMHS ice hockey team’s starting goaltender. The other is junior Ryan Bain, who grew up in a prominent Tewksbury soccer house competing with his older brother Nick, a perennial MVC all-star who graduated from TMHS last June.
“Kyle’s our team leader. He’s like a coach on the field. He hardly ever comes out of the game and neither does Ryan. They make a great combination at center back,” Burns said of Paquette and Bain. “Together they’re pretty cerebral. They help each other a lot and work well together.”
Senior captain Ben LaFortune replaces another MVC all-star, 2014 graduate Ron Mallach at right back. And junior Andrew Boudreau is a first-year starter at left back.
At midfield, Burns rotates three players at the two center mid positions, senior Petros Nacopolous and juniors Connor Blair and John Donovan. Blair, who doubles as a TMHS track star, is probably the team’s fastest and most athletic player, while Nacopolous and Donovan both bring strong skill sets.
At outside mid Connor MacLean, a junior, handles the kicks on all the team’s set pieces. He’s flanked by sophomore Ameen Kalkhoran, who transferred in from Innovation Academy in Tyngsboro this fall.
The team’s attack is led by senior captain Matt Lemos and junior Nick McKeon. Lemos is the team’s top returning scorer, but he has taken on the role of set-up man this fall, which has benefitted McKeon in many ways. Through his first five games, McKeon scored a team-high seven goals, sparking TMHS to eye-opening wins over Methuen, Stoneham, Haverhill, and Andover.
Burns also relies on senior forward/mid Marcos Aguilar and midfielders Jack Bicknell (a sophomore) and Josh Cabral (a junior) for quality minutes in each game.
In spite of a recent scoring drought (the Redmen scored 15 goals in their first five games, but haven’t scored any in their last three) Burns has his sights set firmly on finishing the season at the top of the MVC division 2 standings.
“We’re gonna make the (state) tournament, that’s not even a question anymore,” Burns said. “But we want to win the league. I think that’s a realistic goal. In my first two years we didn’t beat any of the (MVC) upper division teams. But so far we’ve gone 2-0-2 against upper division teams this season.”
At this point, Chelmsford High (4-2-0 through six games) appears to be Tewksbury’s toughest competitor in the small school division.
“We’re trying to keep pace with Chelmsford,” Burns said. “We have a chance because were gonna play Chelmsford twice so we can affect the standings. So it’s there for us. And it’s all based on us now.”
And as far as being the program’s savior goes, Burns says he’s just been blessed with a hard working group of kids.
“It’s not really anything I did, it’s all down to the kids,” Burns said. “We just gave them a target to shoot at and they’ve worked really hard to get there. They’ve embraced the system, they’ve embraced working hard at practice, they’ve embraced the fitness. They’ve embraced everything we’ve tried to do. So really, it’s them. It’s the players from top to bottom. They deserve all the credit. They’ve taken what we’ve asked them do and they’ve done it. They believe in themselves and they believe in each other and they play hard. We just gave them a goal to shoot for and gave them an idea of how to play.”
The Redmen have the weekend off before resuming MVC action with two night games next week. They play at Lawrence on Tuesday (7:30 p.m.) and at Lowell on Thursday (6:00 p.m.).