Mike Skarbelis raced toward the Methuen net Tuesday afternoon, headed in a loose ball for his third goal of the game, and never broke stride, jogging all the way back to the North Andover bench.
Just five minutes into the second half, the senior striker took a seat as the undefeated Scarlet Knights were well on their way to their 11th straight win, 6-0.
Skarbelis, the squad’s only returning Merrimack Valley Conference All-Star, is one of 11 starting seniors for the reigning Division 2 North champions, giving a whole new definition to team chemistry.
“We’re clicking very well, better than the past few years,” said Skarbelis, who is pacing the MVC in goals (21) this season and is closing in on the school’s career record (57). “A lot of these kids have been playing together since we were little, so it’s just easier to play with them now.”
Senior goalie Marc Patnaude has had the same two center backs as defensive anchors since the fifth grade: his twin brother, Todd, and senior cocaptain Jeff Warden.
“It’s very comforting to know the players that are in front of you because you know their strengths and weaknesses,” said the 6-foot-1 keeper, who is also a cocaptain. “It’s not like you have to learn new players when you join the team. Everyone that we’re playing with we’ve been playing with since at least seventh grade.”
Opposing teams recognize the Scarlet Knights’ team unity.
“They’re very good with each other,” said Methuen coach Jeff Lamy , whose Ranger squad has yet to win a game. “For us, having sophomores and juniors and seniors, some players get a little frustrated because not everybody’s on the same page, but you can see with 11 [starting] seniors, there’s a lot of chemistry there.”
There is, however, one significant addition: first-year head coach Kyle Wood has succeeded Bill Tarbox , who retired after a 22-year run at North Andover. He is now an assistant on the varsity girls’ squad at Haverhill, where his son, Fred, is the head coach.
Wood, a 38-year-old Upton native, was the freshman coach at North Andover for 12 years.
“Bill is probably one of the most knowledgeable people about the game of soccer that I’ve ever met,” said Wood, who played collegiately at Westfield State. “But as good as Bill was, I try to be my own coach. I think if you look at all great coaches in history, none of them tried to be someone else. They all try to be themselves, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Tarbox said he believes Wood will make a fine replacement.
“He’s worthy of the job opportunity, he’s young, and he’s done a fine job so far,” said the 63-year-old, who also was also varsity boys’ coach at Greater Lawrence for 18 years. “Right from the very beginning last spring when he got the job, he and I would be in touch, he came over to my house and I said ‘Kyle, here’s how you steer the ship; here’s what you got to do.’ ”
It appears Wood listened closely; he is already building strong relationships with his players.
“He really gets to know people,” said Skarbelis. “If I have a bad day, he knows what to do to make me play better and he just does that for everyone. It’s so hard to do what he’s done, and he’s done an excellent job. I don’t think anyone else could have done a better job filling Bill’s shoes.”
Wood, in turn, knows what he has in Skarbelis, a player who has a nose for the net.
“He has great speed and tremendous quickness,” Wood said of the 5-foot-10, 155-pound Skarbelis. “He has that gear that makes him go from fast to very fast, which not many people have. He has the ability to get by defenders with his quickness, but he also has a great field sense about him and a good field IQ of where the ball is going to be. He’s just a special player and a pure goal scorer.”
The real test for Wood will be next year. Nineteen of the 24 varsity players will graduate.
To prepare and ease the transition, he has had the junior varsity and freshman squads — both of which are also undefeated — work with the seniors at varsity practices.
But for now, he is focused on this season, hoping his senior class walks out on a high note.
“I don’t need to motivate them too much,” said Wood. “They know that this is it for them; they don’t have a second chance. What’s the best part about this team is they really want to be remembered and talked about. I think they know with me as a new coach they’re kind of starting a new legacy, so I think they’re able to have a new definition of North Andover soccer.”
Central Catholic’s unbeaten start
With an eye on its second straight unbeaten regular season, the Central Catholic girls won their first nine games.
But the Red Raiders do not want to repeat last year’s early exit from the tournament, a 2-1 loss to Beverly in the Division 1 North final.
Coach Casey Grange has created a different mentality and approach this season.
“I think we were a little too confident going into [the Beverly] game and kind of overlooked them,” said the fourth-year head coach. “We definitely learned from that and now we take it literally one day at a time and we’re not overlooking everyone.”
So far, the Red Raiders’ biggest competition has been themselves, outscoring opponents 41-1. The lone goal was scored on a penalty kick.
Freshman goalie Amanda Fay has not allowed a goal in six-plus games, while seniors Kylie Regan, Aly Spencer, and Courtney Walsh have combined for 24 goals on offense.
Grange credits much of the team’s defensive prowess to senior captain Steph May, an outside back who has played about 95 percent of the team’s minutes since her freshman year.
The 28-year-old coach calls her top defender “a completely dedicated, passionate leader who has really pulled our defense together and makes sure nothing gets by.”