PORTLAND—From the depths of a 2-5 start to the season, North Yarmouth Academy’s boys’ soccer team produced a dream ending Saturday morning at Deering High School.

By capturing the Gold Ball that eluded it the past two trips to the big stage.

Facing a Madawaska squad seeking its first ever championship, The Panthers found themselves down a goal just four minutes into the game, as Owls captain Brady Gagnon startled those on-hand by finishing a cross from captain Carsen Cyr.

That goal awakened NYA, which drew even four minutes later, as senior captain Jack Byrne scored on a rebound.

The Panthers had some great looks later in the first half, but couldn’t convert, and the game went to the break deadlocked, 1-1.

NYA needed just 20 seconds at the start of the second half to go on top for good, as senior captain Cooper St. Hilaire scored on a rebound.

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The Panthers never got another goal, despite ample chances, but they didn’t need one, as their defense held Madawaska at bay and NYA went on to a 2-1 victory.

The Panthers finished the season 11-7 and ended the Owls’ campaign at 15-3, as they won Class D for the first time since 2018 and captured the program’s 10th Gold Ball overall.

“We came into the year with expectations of nothing less than a Gold Ball,” Byrne said. “We really became a family. Our team camaraderie brought us a long way.”

Unfinished business

Last season, NYA made a spirited run to the state final, then ran into a buzzsaw in Lee Academy, losing, 5-0. This fall, the Panthers welcomed a new coach in Branden Noltkamper and took awhile to hit their stride, but did they ever save their best for last (see sidebar for links to previous stories).

NYA won just two of its first seven games, but won five of its next six and wound up .500. As the No. 5 seed, the Panthers had to win two true road games, as well as a neutral site contest to advance to states and they did so, knocking off fourth-ranked Richmond (2-0) in the quarterfinals, upsetting top-seeded Greenville (2-0) in the semifinals, then having no trouble with No. 2 Islesboro (5-0) in the regional final game played Tuesday at Freeport.

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“Coach brought us in after the Waynflete game (a 4-1 home loss Sept. 24) and told us the next seven games would make it or break it for us,” St. Hilaire said. “We started rolling. We turned it around.”

“I really think everything changed after the second Waynflete game,” said Noltkamper. “We had a 45-minute player’s meeting in the locker room. The guys recognized by themselves that they needed to train harder and prepare for games better.”

Madawaska lost two games to eventual Class C finalist Fort Kent (4-2 and 1-0), but won its other 12 contests by outscoring the opposition, 85-10.

As the No. 2 seed in Class D North, the Owls advanced by ousting No. 10 Katahdin (7-0) in the quarterfinals, third-ranked Fort Fairfield (6-1) in the semifinals and top-seeded Bangor Christian (7-1) in the regional final.

The teams had met once prior, a 3-0 NYA victory way back in the 1998 Class C state game.

Madawaska is the only school to play for championships in all four classes, but had gone 0-for-8 in its previous state game appearances.

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The Panthers, meanwhile, had won nine of 13 state finals (see sidebar)

Saturday, on a beautiful first Saturday of November (62 degrees at kickoff and climbing into the high 60s over the course of the game), Madawaska again went after its first title, but NYA completed its late-season surge with a championship.

North Yarmouth Academy senior captain Alex Wignall defends Madawaska’s Sam Dufresne early in the Panthers’ 2-1 victory in Saturday’s Class D state final. Hoffer photos.

The Owls made an immediate statement, as goalkeeper Chris Boucher boomed the ball downfield, where Cyr ran it down, then raced up the left sideline before crossing the ball in front, where Gagnon was waiting to send it past Panthers’ senior goalkeeper Tanner Anctil for a 1-0 lead with the game a mere four minutes old.

But NYA quickly shook it off.

“There was no panic after they scored,” said St. Hilaire. “We knew goals would come.”

Sure enough, with 31:55 left in the first half, the Panthers got the equalizer, as junior Grey Perham had a shot saved by Boucher, but Byrne was waiting to bury the rebound to restore order.

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“I saw the ball come off the goalie’s hands and I just put the ball top shelf,” Byrne said. “It’s one of those moments where you don’t think. You just see the ball and do what you were taught to do. It was unbelievable to score in a state game.”

“We knew could go down 1-0 early and it was about how we reacted,” said Noltkamper.

The rest of the first half saw NYA with multiple near-misses, as Boucher saved shots from St. Hilaire, senior captain Wyatt Thomas, senior Rodgers Crowley, Thomas again and senior captain Alex Wignall.

The Panthers were just off the mark on several other looks.

Late in the half, Madawaska nearly retook the lead, but Gagnon was robbed point-blank by Anctil to keep the score 1-1.

NYA then started the second half in breathtaking fashion to take the lead.

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After taking a pass from Thomas, Crowley got the play started with a cross that Boucher tipped out to Perham, whose shot was denied by a defender, but St. Hilaire buried the rebound and just 20 seconds into the second half, the Panthers had a 2-1 advantage.

“The ball got kicked off a defender and came to me,” St. Hilaire said. “I just kicked it and it went in.”

“The guys got together at halftime and we knew whoever came out more intense was going to win,” said Byrne. “Wyatt played a beautiful ball to Rodgers and when it landed, I knew something good would happen I knew (Cooper would) put his head through a brick wall to score.”

“Once we got one, we knew the second one would come,” Noltkamper added. “We just stuck to the plan. We just needed to fine tune some things.”

Gagnon looked to answer for the Owls, but he had a shot blocked in the box.

After Boucher twice denied St. Hilaire, Madawaska midfielder Sam Dufresne served a promising cross that sailed just over the crossbar and landed on the net.

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NYA then went back on the attack, but was stymied by Boucher, who saved shots from junior Ethan Brochu, Crowley, Byrne, St. Hilaire (with a dive) and Crowley once more.

“I thought their keeper did a tremendous job,” said Noltkamper. “He’s one of the best we’ve seen all year.”

The Owls’ last, best chance came when Cyr got the ball in the box, but his rush was broken up.

The Panthers were then content to run down the final minutes and after senior captain Seamus Rohde headed away one last Madawaska foray, they celebrated their 2-1 victory at 11:34 a.m.

NYA celebrates its state championship game win.

“It feels great,” said St. Hilaire. “It took four years to get back here. We watched Madawaska and what they were doing and we executed our game plan well. I was just praying they wouldn’t score. It was a fun celebration at the end.”

“I’ve been dreaming of this moment since the day we walked off the field my freshman year (losing in the state final),” Byrne said. “Having the chance to do it last year and coming up short left us with a void that we had to fill. We’ve fallen behind a few times this year and we weren’t able to come back, but we brought the guys together and said, ‘Hey, we’re better than them. Our game versus their game, there’s not a single player better than us, just stick to our game.’ Seeing the boys pick up the Gold Ball is something you dream about.”

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“It feels really good,” said Rohde. “We lost two before this and lost last year in lacrosse too, so it was time. We were ready. We knew coming in we’d win this game no matter what. The coaches prepared us well. We’re so athletic. We were just able to react well. It’s the best feeling in the world. Nothing like it. The first half of the season was difficult. We played tough games, but we never panicked and here we are.”

“I couldn’t be happier,” Noltkamper added. “It wasn’t easy by any means, but we enjoyed it. The guys deserve credit for all the work they put it in all year. The seniors deserve it. They’ve had a couple years of heartbreak and they finally pulled through. The boys stayed confident throughout.”

NYA senior captains Wyatt Thomas, left, Jack Byrne, Alex Wignall and Seamus Rohde show off the championship trophy following Saturday’s victory.

NYA out-shot Madawaska, 26-3, on frame and got two saves from Anctil.

The Panthers also took all 11 of the game’s corner kicks.

Boucher stopped 20 for the Owls, who also got four defensive saves.

“(NYA’s) the best team that we’ve seen this season. You can tell they all play club soccer all year round,” said Madawaska coach Ben Gagnon. “Twenty seconds into the second half, a mental error, and they capitalized.”

NYA has to say goodbye to nine seniors, including four captains, and their goalie, but the Panthers have plenty of young talent in reserve and will have the pieces in place to vie for a title again in 2023.

“Our goal at NYA is always to win a state championship,” said Noltkamper. “We want to get back and win it again.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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