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Concord-Carlisle in line for three-peat

Talented core and inspiring coach set up young team as threat for another state title

Concord-Carlisle High players celebrate their victory in the MIAA Division 2 state final last year over Nipmuc Regional, 2-1. Concord-Carlisle High players celebrate their victory in the MIAA Division 2 state final last year over Nipmuc Regional, 2-1. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File)
By Jason Mastrodonato
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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This fall, 115 high schools will field Division 2 boys’ soccer teams in the state, according to the Massachusetts Interscholastics Athletic Association.

With roughly 20 players per team, approximately 2,300 boys will wear a varsity uniform.

At the end of the season, after enduring the double sessions in the late-August heat, dozens of practice sessions, 20-plus games, and tired legs and drained minds, three players in the area have a chance to do something incredibly special.

Ethan Atwood, Chris Walker-Jacks, and Mike O’Brien enter the season with a shot at their third consecutive state championship. Thousands of student-athletes graduate each year without knowing what it’s like to even play in a state title game, much less win two of them.

But under the dynasty that has developed at Concord-Carlisle High School under 10-year soccer coach Ray Pavlik, even the unthinkable seems possible.

Not only possible, but perhaps even likely.

“I don’t think our talent is what got us to where we were last year,’’ said the Walker-Jacks, a do-it-all defender with a high fitness level. “It’s more than that. There’s something that we just have. I actually think we’re going to be just as good, and I fully expect us to have a chance to defend our title.’’

Even after the Patriots lost 14 players off last year’s squad, including All-Scholastics Cam McGrory (goal) and Alex Puchrik (midfield), one of the top central midfielders around in Aaron Nickelsberg, and eight of their top 11 goal-scorers?

“C-C is always going to make a splash,’’ said one Dual County League coach. “And they play at such a high work-rate, it’s hard to break them down and take advantage of those things.

“Walker-Jacks is a pretty special player. He can make up for a lot of errors,’’ especially under Pavlik’s system, the coach said. “He drops him back to give Walker-Jacks more of an ability to clean up any mess that comes through.’’

The 5-foot-11, 170-pound sweeper is a vacuum of sorts. He is the lone starting defender returning from Concord-Carlisle’s team last year.

Facing the unfair task of replacing McGrory in net is senior Peter Cavanagh, who spent last season playing for the junior varsity.

While it seems likely that the Patriots will allow more than the 12 goals they let in all of last year, with O’Brien up front, it may not matter.

To really grasp the talent Concord-Carlisle graduated last year, consider this: O’Brien has a chance to become the school’s all-time leading scorer this season. The past few years he’s been, as he considers, a piece of the background. He was “just going along for the ride.’’

But area coaches seem to agree that O’Brien is a big-time player - a game-changer. He’s certainly gifted, and while not the most technically skilled player in the area, he’s one of the best athletes Concord-Carlisle has seen in years.

And his speed, as one rival coach put it, “is off-the-charts ridiculous.’’

During the Division 2 North sectional final in freezing temperatures last November against Winchester, with the game in overtime and three months of running starting to show in the legs of nearly every player on the field, the 5-foot-9 O’Brien sprinted by the Sachems’ defense and fired a laser for the 2-1 win.

“He’s always working and that’s what makes him so difficult to keep track of,’’ said another DCL coach. “He’ll beat you to the ball if you’re not entirely aware of where he is.’’

Now, to fully understand Concord-Carlisle, you have to understand Pavlik. The part of his mind that’s devoted to soccer never seems to stop running. Right when it seems like he’s talking in one big circle, he says something that just ties it all together (and helps explain why Concord-Carlisle hasn’t had a losing season in his tenure).

His players describe him as patient, yet passionate. When his team was facing a 1-0 deficit at halftime of the Winchester game, Pavlik was as calm as could be.

In no way does that mean he was happy, but he’s a student of the game, and he never stops studying it.

“You won’t be quite sure what he means or you might doubt him at first,’’ O’Brien says. “That’s the great thing about Coach Pavlik. Even though some of the things he says you might not initially agree with, over time you realize most of the time he’s right.’’

Rarely does Pavlik say anything negative. But there’s a reason for everything he does say, and trying to crack his code is like moving to a foreign country and trying to learn its language: You continuously mess up, but the degree of error is smaller and smaller each time until eventually you sound just like the locals.

Pavlik returns just four starters yet no one seems to think Concord-Carlisle is going to be anything less than a legitimate threat to make another run. It’s September and his players are still learning the language. But once they master it - look out.

“They might not understand at first, they’ll question it,’’ said O’Brien. “But if the rest of the team is going along with it and not questioning him, they trust us and they’ll follow along. You can tell.

“The seniors have been with Pavlik for enough time to realize he knows what he’s doing. And it works out pretty well that way.’’

En route to its second consecutive state title and third in the last five, the Patriots had more injuries than ever last season, yet lost just a single game, when Lincoln-Sudbury Regional, led by Cole DeNormandie, finally cracked through in a one-goal match in early November.

Everyone on the Patriots’ roster registered at least a point (even McGrory). The last player to get a point, Stowe Simonton, finally cracked through in the biggest of moments, scoring the winner in the state final.

This year Pavlik is expecting much of the same. It’s a team mostly filled with players looking to prove themselves. But as one DCL coach said, “There are three or four new ones that every year, they turn into very capable players.’’ Because of that, he said, Pavlik “has that perfect balance of veterans and young, don’t-know-any-better talent.’’

But they will likely know better eventually, even if it takes some time. Pavlik will have surely learned something about his squad after Friday’s scheduled season-opening match with Lincoln-Sudbury. Pavlik hopes his athletes are listening - even if they don’t understand what he’s saying quite yet. Somewhere in the coach’s words, there’s brilliance waiting to be decoded.

“Right now you hope kids do certain things, but until they actually do it, obviously there are some question marks,’’ he said. “I think where we’ve been recently, I would imagine people who play us are going to make the assumption and the expectation that we’re a very good team until someone proves us otherwise.

“I’d like to think that when we get down to the end, we’re in a position to defend our state title. And if not, we’re going to go down fighting.’’

Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at jasonmastrodonato@