Moments after St. John’s Prep lost its first regular season boys’ soccer game in over a calendar year, senior Gabe Najim was laying down on his back, staring into the night sky.
His blank facial expression matched those of his teammates, deflated after being blanked by host Needham, 4-0, at Brock Field on Saturday night, with the hosts striking for all four of its goals in the final 40 minutes.
The crowd that filled the sideline five-people deep to see Prep, ranked seventh in last week’s USA Today poll, take on the Rockets, had already departed.
Dave Crowell, the 20-year coach of the Eagles, led the conversation and the players joined in.
“They just wanted it more than us tonight,” Najim said to his team.
Outside of a 2-2 tie to Catholic Conference rival Xaverian, the Eagles earned impressive victories over Silver Lake, Masconomet, and Xaverian the second time around, outscoring its foes, 36-4, in the first 10 games.
The players felt the loss was just a “blip on the radar.” Time will tell. The Eagles have lost just seven total games since the start of the 2017 season, highlighted by consecutive appearances in the Division 1 North finals.
“Being number one puts a huge target on your back and we’ve answered up to it so far,” said Crowell, whose team rebounded with a 4-2 win over Everett Monday to improve to 10-1-1. “We’ve been very disciplined. Our marking and our effort has been great. Overall we have great team depth and the team has been working hard in practice.”
The Eagles are technically advanced and they move the ball extremely well. They are stout in the midfield, with the return of Globe All-Scholastic Zach Davis. The senior captain from Hamilton seemingly always has the ball on his feet, either taking it away from the opposition or setting up plays for his forwards down field.
A goal-scoring forward, Najim is one of Davis’s frequent targets, while fellow senior Ethan Ambrosh leads the team in assists, and captain Ryan Hart and senior Andrew Behling provide strong play from the center back position.
Injuries to a pair of key strikers, seniors Kuol Majok and Omar Chaghouri, plus the challenge of breaking in a new keeper, sophomore Joe Waterman, haven’t been issues. The team credits cohesion as a major reason for success, despite the shuffles in the lineup.
“We came back with a lot of depth and returners so we have a lot of chemistry,” Hart said.
“Half of our team has been playing together since freshman [year], so we know the ins and outs. We’re best friends on and off the field and we know how each other works.”
Communication and chemistry are key components.
Crowell raved about the tight-knit nature of this group, evidenced Saturday night when Davis immediately approached Najim. In the postgame circle, players looked each other in the eye and spoke with confidence about what they need to do better.
Post-practice trips to Buffalo Wild Wings, pasta parties, and a team group message have kept the bond tight off the field. On the field, players are constantly communicating about positioning and decision-making.
“We can’t have any negativity, we need to be positive,” Davis said. “We always pick each other up. When someone has a bad game, we tell them ‘it happens.’ We always hold each other accountable, but in a positive way.”
Last week epitomized the ups and downs a season can bring.
Earlier in the week, the group message board exploded when the USA Today ranking came out.
But by Saturday night, there was reflection.
“We needed a wake-up call,” Davis said. “Being St. John’s Prep, everyone wants to beat us. We lost that ranking already one week in. It’s disappointing but it relieves us from that role and let’s us get back to the drawing board.”
Crowell emphasized the importance of having three games this week in order to put the loss behind them and have the opportunity to respond to the first real test of adversity. A manageable schedule the rest of the way means the Eagles should earn a high seed once again in the D1 North tournament bracket, where potential clashes with powerhouses Lexington and Lincoln-Sudbury await.
“We have a great team chemistry and that means we all know the end goal this year,” Davis said. “That’s winning a state championship.”
■ North Andover, ranked fifth in this week’s Globe Top 20, leads the Merrimack Valley Large at 9-0-1. That one blemish is a non-league 0-0 draw with Masconomet. That 9-0 conference mark is especially impressive considering that in the MVC Large, six of seven teams are at or about .500 in league play.
■ Perhaps the biggest story in the Bay State Conference is Needham sitting atop the Herget division, especially after its eye-opening 4-0 win against St. John’s Prep on Saturday. It was the first loss for Prep, which was ranked No. 1 at the time. The Rockets’ only losses? No. 10 Weymouth and No. 1 Lexington.
The BSC is, as usual, one of the stronger leagues in Eastern Massachusetts. But the standings don’t look exactly as one would have expected in August. Framingham, now ranked ninth by the Globe, leads the Carey division with a 4-0-3 league record. The Flyers’ last three games include a 5-0 win over No. 10 Weymouth, a 1-1 tie with Brookline, and a 3-1 win over Somerville.
“I’m finding that teams that might not historically be really that competitive, are,” said head coach Kyle Wood, who picked up his 100th win last week. “The MVC is going to be tough. Last year most teams made the tournament. Most of us went further than the second round.”
It figures to be another tournament season with the MVC featured prominently.
The road ahead is bumpy, though, with big tests against ranked teams Weymouth and Framingham and meetings with a few strong teams outside the top 20, like BC High and two against Brookline.
Wellesley is another interesting story in the conference, the defending Division 1 North champion sitting third in the Carey at 3-2-2. Last season they started slowly and then reeled off a long winning streak all the way to the state final. Their remaining schedule only includes one Top 20 team.
■ East Boston sits atop the Boston City League with an 8-1 record and a gaudy 41-5 goal differential. Much of that damage has been done by senior captain Roberto Dubon, who had seven points in two games last week as the Jets outscored opponents 9-0.
They lost their only non-league game this year, 2-1 to Brockton, and the next such test won’t come until the MIAA tournament. The Jets turned heads last year knocking out Somerville in the postseason, and their record thus far this season could spell another intriguing matchup in November.
Games to watch
Tuesday, Bishop Feehan at Carver, 4 p.m. — At 7-1-1, Feehan makes a visit to 8-2 Carver in a nonleague battle.
Wednesday, Brookline at Needham, 4 p.m. — Brookline visits No. 7 Needham for a Bay State Conference meeting and the Warriors need a big win to work toward postseason contention.
Friday, Concord-Carlisle at Lincoln-Sudbury, 4 p.m. — This Dual County League rivalry between a pair of Top 20 teams is renewed after L-S took a 3-2 win on Sept. 28.
Friday, Norwell at Cohasset, 4 p.m. — A pair of unbeatens meet in a huge South Shore League clash.
Saturday, Silver Lake at Hingham, 1 p.m. — First place in the Patriot League Keenan is up for grabs in this Top 20 showdown.