BEVERLY — Frustration was beginning to settle in for the Beverly High boys’ soccer team.
There were exasperated looks on the faces of the players, their hands motioning to the sky in disbelief.
The Panthers were controlling the play against Lynn Classical, but trailed, 1-0.
A textbook corner kick set up a strong header, only to be kept out by a sprawling save by the keeper. Two more headers barely missed the target, one to the right and one over the top. A break on goal looked promising, but a hurried shot whistled wide.
But encouraging chatter continued to flow:
“Let's go! Make them work! Keep attacking! Be physical!”
As the sun dipped below the trees Tuesday evening, Beverly finally broke through.
Midfielder Ryan Santo stepped in front of a Rams throw-in, dribbled to goal, and launched a bullet to the top of the net from 25 yards out.
Just three minutes later, off a throw-in from midfielder Cam Rogers, striker Conor Leahy used deft footwork to boot home another score. And the Panthers struck for their third unanswered goal on a Brendan Cronin header off a corner from Leahy 15 minutes later.
The Panthers held on for a 3-2 win, improving to 8-3-2 overall, and in the process qualified for the state tourney for the first time since 2006, when Beverly was a Division 1 program (Division 2 now).
“Last year we wouldn’t have won that game, no way” said coach Kevin Leahy, in his 10th season at Beverly. “I don’t know if we would have come back after giving up a goal. This year we have a whole new attitude.”
That attitude is summarized in two words that have emerged as the team motto.
The idea came to Leahy in August, when he went for a stroll in the woods and was listening to Sam Rogers’ 1979 ballad “The Mary Ellen Carter.” He was struck by the message of the lyrics: Rise again.
“I thought, ‘That’s perfect!’ ” Leahy said. “I had a feeling we were going to have a good team this year, so that’s been our motto all year, to rise again.”
For a once-proud program that reached the Division 1 North final in 2002 and made six straight tournament appearances from 2001 to 2006, the rallying cry reminded the squad what was at stake.
“The first thing we said at the beginning of the season was that we wanted to make the tournament,” said Conor Leahy, the coach’s son, who has tallied 16 goals and 11 assists through 13 games.
“We figured we had the talent to do it this year, and I think we finally showed it.”
Leahy, last season’s Northeastern Conference MVP, is a tricaptain along with fellow seniors Rogers and defender Dylan Perry.
“We really brought toughness back; I think that was the key,” said Rogers, a 2011 league all-star. “I’d say our toughest guys are our younger kids just banging in practice, just showing them that’s what you’re supposed to do, not shying away from contact.”
The Panthers have stressed aggressive play from every contributor on the roster. Rarely are there moments in which a foe has open space.
“Every single person on our team is physical, which is a huge part of our success,” Perry said. “We tend to wear teams down with our physicality. Even if we’re not scoring, we want to dictate the play.”
The new approach immediately paid dividends: The Panthers were unbeaten in their first five games, outscoring opponents 19 to 8. The run has continued to a berth in the postseason, and suddenly Beverly has set its sights higher.
“We realized right away we were going to be much better than even we expected, so another goal we have is to win the conference,” Rogers said. “Everyone is pretty even this year; why not us?”
A conference title was an afterthought a season ago, but these are different times for Beverly. After the postseason-clinching win over Lynn Classical, the team gathered in a huddle and put their hands together. Instead of clamoring “Rise again,” a new refrain echoed through the October air.
“We have risen!“
H-W girls turn
After reaching the Division 2 North semifinals in 2010, the Hamilton-Wenham girls stumbled out of the gate and finished 4-9-3 last season.
Alvi Ibanez knew how much the players hated losing.
The Colombia native — a standout at Old Dominion and Salem State who later played professionally for the Boston Storm — had coached many of the Generals with the SF Viking North Shore club team.
When the H-W coaching position opened this year, Ibanez took the job knowing a driven group awaited him.
“The senior class is really hungry for a good season after a disappointing year,” Ibanez said. “The motivation has always been there, and I just wanted to piggyback off that.”
The Generals have bounced back in a big way, going 11-1-1 through Wednesday while surrendering just two goals all season. Senior forward Alana Vecchiarello is second in the Cape Ann League with 21 points (16 goals, 5 assists), while senior goalkeeper Taylor Morong has a 0.16 goals-against-average and 10 shutouts.
The team figures to be a contender in the Division 1 North sectionals.
“My belief is that a team should be better toward the end of a season than at the beginning,” Ibanez said. “We will be a well-oiled machine.”
Rivals not for long
Next fall, Hayley Dowd and Andrea O’Brien will be teammates at Boston College. On Monday afternoon, the two talented strikers went head-to-head when defending state champion Peabody hosted Concord-Carlisle.
Neither disappointed as the Tanners walked away with a 2-0 win.
“I just met [Dowd] this year,” said O’Brien, who missed scoring her 20th goal of the season in the 62d minute of play by mere inches, blistering a shot over the crossbar. “Hayley’s really nice and obviously a great player. I’m really excited to play with her next year; she’s a great girl.”
Dowd, who finished the game with a goal and an assist (giving her 15 goals and nine assists this season), was in a more talkative mood.
“It’s a little weird seeing [O’Brien] on the other side of the field because we know that we’re going to play together,” she said. “But Andrea’s an excellent player and I can’t wait to play with her next year.
“I think it’s obviously a different dynamic to be a teammate with somebody,” added Dowd.
“I just hope we can be friends; we’re used to being rivals, so I think it’ll be nice to make a new friend.”