BY THE BANNER SPORTS STAFF
For the third year in a row, we have surveyed the area, studied the game from the sideline and quizzed local coaches on the top high school boys soccer players around.
Many were worthy of recognition for their exploits this fall, but the process, ultimately, results in only a handful of honorees. Our selections should in no way diminish the outstanding performances of those not included in our squad.
While important, statistics and league honors were only partial factors in our lineup, which attempts to recognize players from all positions.
Based on the information and input we received, as well as our own observations about players' production, importance to their squad and individual skill-sets, we present the 3rd Annual Banner XI All-Star squad.
THE FIRST ELEVEN
Liam Kelleher - Jr., Midfield - Burr and Burton Academy
[Player of the Year]
-- Tireless and unflappable, Kelleher's offensive output (five goals, four assists) does no justice for his impact on the game.
No, Kelleher is our Banner XI Player of the Year because he is so good at what he does, patrolling sideline to sideline, box to box, that it looked like BBA suited up its entire midfield in his No. 17 jersey.
"He's just a workhorse, he never stops going," said Mount Anthony coach Mike Molloy, praising the midfielder's work rate. "It seems like there's more than one of him out there."
Even when he's had an abundance of talented midfielders, BBA coach Pete Mull said he has always played two defensive midfielders at the same time. With Kelleher, there was no need.
"With him, I'm able to put just one guy there," Mull said.
The junior's steady demeanor and team-first attitude earned him a captain's armband. His aerial prowess, timing and ability to edge opponents out of tackles meant he won just about every ball he saw.
"He does what has to be done," Mull said. "The more I watch tape of the games ... the more I'm impressed with the way he plays."
Fred Pickering - Sr., Forward - Arlington
-- Eagles coach Todd Wilkins describes Pickering, an all-state player in Division IV, as "a game-changer across the board." Pickering scored 19 goals, ending the year with five hat tricks, including one in the playoffs. He added eight assists as well. "Even when he's not scoring, he forces people to defend him, which opens opportunities for teammates," Wilkins said. "He's one of the best players in Division IV and will be sorely missed."
Chris LaCroix - Sr., Forward - Hoosick Falls
-- Speedy and skilled, LaCroix finished 2012 with eight goals and seven assists -- and that's after missing more than two weeks of the regular season with a virus. "By his standards he had a sub-par regular season," coach Mike Young said. The playoffs? "He was 50-times above par," said Young. LaCroix peaked at the right time to provide electric play in the Panthers' dream postseason run, scoring five times, all game-winners.
Tyler Carr - Sr., Forward - Hoosick Falls
-- An imposing figure in attack, Carr turned hard work into clutch goals all season for the Panthers, earning the nickname "Big Goal Carr" from his teammates and coaches. His partnership with and runs off of LaCroix reaped 13 goals and seven assists this fall -- none bigger than his overtime winner against Maple Hill in the sectional final. "I don't know if that's a run he makes last year," Young said. "He's scored some huge goals for us."
Reid Conde - So., Midfield - Burr and Burton Academy
-- Arguably the Bulldogs' most skilled player, the fiery sophomore set the tone in attack with a team-best 17 goals and six assists as a withdrawn striker tasked with linking to midfield. Conde's sterling first touch and one-time combos were never finer than his game-winner in the state final, a give-and-go he finished with a curling ball to the far post after a long run. "He understands the team game," Mull said. "He's very committed to soccer."
Andrew Slade - Sr., Midfield - Mount Anthony
-- The Patriots' MVP, Slade's skill with the ball was undeniable and the first focal point for opponents. "He was our targeted guy," Molloy said. "He was the guy everyone was concerned with." Never one to shy away from taking on a defender or having a crack at goal with his powerful left foot, Slade picked up four goals and two assists in a more withdrawn midfield role during his senior season.
Evan Phillips - Sr., Midfield - Hoosick Falls
-- Phillips blossomed into an all-state caliber player this fall for the Panthers, notching three goals and six assists in his holding midfield role. The team's dead-ball specialist, Phillips' knack for breaking up play and turning intercepted passes into offense was crucial. "He was the guy that really catalyzed our offense, a great transition guy from defense to attack," Young said.
Ian Conde - Sr., Defense - Burr and Burton Academy
-- Mull's first two-time captain, Conde was the backbone and field general for a defense that allowed just eight goals during a perfect 18-0 campaign. Conde's vocal leadership and strong tackling were vital as the Bulldogs refused to allow more than one goal in any game. "[Center back] is always the position you want to be very, very strong in -- you can't train out there, you have to be good."
Robert England - Sr., Defense - Burr and Burton Academy
-- BBA's quickest defender matched top-end speed with tremendous endurance, appearing able to run for days, always able to clean up any danger at the back. Primarily a right back as a junior, his switch to the left side showed a versatility any team would want. "His ability to anticipate what he can do ... he never overcommitted, never stabbed at the ball," Mull said.
Taylor Baker - Sr., Defense - Hoosick Falls
-- Splitting time between the forward line and the back line, Baker still racked up nine goals and three assists with speed, height and athleticism. His commitment to learning the game and will to not get beat made him an invaluable defender for a team that strung together six consecutive one-goal victories in the playoffs. "As much as he likes scoring goals, he likes keeping the other team out of the goal just as much," Young said.
Mike Nolan - Sr., Goalkeeper - Burr and Burton Academy
-- The last line of defense for a team that stood out for its stinginess, Nolan (10 shutouts) took ownership of the No. 1 goalkeeping spot. Capable of jaw-dropping saves, his quickness and anticipation meant he was almost never caught off-guard. And his command in the box meant the senior was seldom challenged. "He came up big in the finals when he was finally tested, especially in the second half," Mull said. Evidence: Montpelier's lone goal beat his outstretched arms and needed a favorable bounce off the far post to cross the line.
John Esposito - Sr., Forward - Arlington
-- Esposito scored six goals on the season, but Wilkins said his biggest asset was his work ethic and leadership. The senior was able to take advantage of opportunities when teams would double other teammates. "He was one of our best leaders vocally and by example," he said.
Robert Wotjkun - Jr., Forward - Cambridge
-- Wotjkun, who scored three times in 2012, was also influential on a team full of freshmen and sophomores. "Robert knows all aspects of the game, and he's an all-around player," coach James Ingber said. Wotjkun, who moved down to JV when the team dissolved in 2011, kept the younger players going in the right direction, Ingber said.
Sean Paradis - Sr., Forward - Burr and Burton Academy
-- Paradis ended a breakout year with 10 goals and 10 assists, his directness in attack presenting a unique addition to the BBA forward unit. He used his speed to stretch opponents and his one-on-one skills to break down defenders in dangerous areas. "He developed a speed we hadn't seen before. He has the mentality that you're going to need three or four guys to stop him," Mull said.
Marcus LaFlamme - So., Forward - Mount Anthony
-- Even after netting a team-best eight goals this season, "the best is yet to come" for LaFlamme, according to Molloy. The nimble, fast sophomore showed signs of being the goal-scoring threat MAU has missed in recent years, using tremendous speed and instincts to rattle defenses. "He loves, loves, loves soccer," Molloy said.
Zack Stewart - Sr., Forward/MF - Burr and Burton Academy
-- Although he was a defensive midfielder as a junior, Stewart (six goals, four assists) always had a "striker mentality," according to Mull. His character -- a forward willing to track back as much and as often as needed -- and energetic play made him a linchpin for the Bulldogs, who reverted to a somewhat retro 3-4-3 formation because of Stewart. "It was Zack's idea to try three forwards," Mull said. "It worked out really well and gave us more time with the ball in midfield."
Luke Bateman - Sr., Midfield - Cambridge
-- Bateman, one of two returning varsity players after the team's hiatus in 2011, was a leader on and off the field, according to Ingber. Bateman, whose technical skills stood out in the middle of the field, also scored six goals for the Indians. "[He] didn't give up or cash it in because it wasn't a good season," Ingber said. "He kept guys motivated and talked about the future of Cambridge boys soccer."
Brad Anair - So., Midfield - Mount Anthony
-- Versatile throughout midfield and the back line, when needed, Anair was a valuable and skilled "do-anything kid," Molloy said. "[Anair] has the potential to be one of the best MAU guys in the last 10 to 15 years. He's just a soccer guy."
Luke Keenan - So., Defense - Mount Anthony
-- Keenan was the Patriots' most improved player over the course of the 2012 season, growing into the role of the team's top defensive stopper. The junior back shined brightest against state finalist Burlington in the playoffs. "He really held the zone vs. Burlington," Molloy said.
Alex Hawley - Sr., Defense - Arlington
-- Hawley was the Eagles' stopper on the back line and didn't disappoint as Arlington won its first home playoff game since 2009. "He was a true leader and the anchor of our defense," Wilkins said. "He was out for a couple games and we really missed him back there." Hawley, a second-team All State selection, was considered "the No. 1 leader in practice," Wilkins said.
Cody Gaines - Sr., Defense - Hoosick Falls
-- Hoosick Falls' most experienced player, Gaines' mid-season switch from goal to defense helped solidify the formation. "He sacrificed the recognition as one of the league's best goalies," Young said. A true defensive leader, his goalkeeping knowledge aided his successor and his skills made him a force. "You didn't want to go into a tackle against him," Young said.
Noah Chani - So., Goalkeeper - Hoosick Falls
-- Gaines' move to the field allowed Chani (seven shutouts) to pick up the gloves and shine for the Panthers in their Final Four run. Young said his "unbelievable hands" and first-rate shot-stopping ability inspired confidence in older teammates. "Once that whistle blew, it was like he forgot it was his first time as a varsity goalkeeper," Young said.