KIERNAN SCHULZ, an All-Star last season, is one of four senior captains leading the NRHS boys’ soccer team in 2021. (File Photo)
NORTH READING — The NRHS boys’ soccer team got a recent addition to their Cape Ann League championship banner hanging in the gym. The year 2020 has now joined 2006, 2000, 1996, 1995, 1993, 1992, 1991, 1988 and 1976 as league champs. The Hornets went 7-1-2 in last year’s abbreviated season, earning a share of the title with Lynnfield and Newburyport.
The Hornets graduated 12 seniors from that team but return 14, including seven starters.
Also back in 2021 is soccer as most people know it. Gone are pandemic rule changes such as wearing masks and no corner kicks, throw-ins, headers or close contact.
“I think our biggest challenge will be matching up to the physicality of other teams,” said head coach Mark Bisognano. “We do not have the biggest team in terms of height or strength. We are a team that relies on speed, quickness and skill. Last year’s rules changes really worked in our favor, but this year we will have to find a way to win balls in the air and compete against more physical teams. The preseason showed us this and I was really happy with the way the team reacted and adjusted.”
The Hornets will count on four senior captains in 2021: Cody Cannalonga (D), Alex Carpenter (M), Landon Phillips (M) and Kiernan Schulz (M/D). All four are returning starters.
“They have proven to be outstanding leaders throughout the preseason, but they won’t be alone,” said Bisognano about his captains. “We have a strong crew of returning players who are all capable of taking a leadership role.”
The other three returning starters are senior midfielder Jacob Mikulski, last year’s keeper junior Kieran Gorgenyi and junior forward Josh Stanieich.
Gorgenyi will play in the field for the Hornets this year, leaving goalkeeper duties to senior Sebastian Gonzales and junior Travis Long.
“Kieran (Gorgenyi) is a great soccer player whether in the goal or on the field and we think Sebastian and Travis have proven to be very capable varsity level goalkeepers,” said Bisognano.
When it comes to scoring goals, North Reading has one of the best in the league in Stanieich. He has scored 20 goals in 30 career varsity games.
“We obviously expect Stanieich to shoulder a lot of the goal scoring,” said Bisognano. “His scoring totals are impressive but it also means that he is a known commodity in the CAL. Coaches will be looking to stop him but we feel comfortable that we have multiple scoring options. Carpenter and Mikulski are proven varsity scorers as well as Schulz who we will use in a more offensive role this season. Junior Brady Miller, Gorgenyi, junior Rob Corvino, freshman Max Gulino and freshman Matt Fleury have all figured into the scoresheet this preseason so we feel like our attack has the capability of being very diverse.”
Gorgenyi and the Hornet defense only surrendered five goals in 10 games last year. They ended the season with four straight shutouts. Gone from that defense are key players including John Tramontozzi but new leaders are ready to step up, most especially Cannalonga who has been a member of the back line for the last two seasons and has been “rock solid” according to Bisognano.
“I think he learned a lot from John and now it is time for him to lead the line,” said the coach of Cannalonga.
Gorgenyi, Phillips, junior Nathan Miller, senior Quinn Riesenberg and junior Liam Rodger will also be called on to chip in defensively.
In the midfield, the Hornets expect to get major contributions from senior Zac Heintz, junior Jason Emerson and Gulino.
So far, North Reading has had a strong preseason to get ready for their first game which was on Wednesday against Pentucket after press time.
“It’s been a good start to the season,” said Bisognano. “Most of our returning players came back in good shape, ready to put in the work necessary for a grueling season. The younger kids are catching on quick to what the expectations are in terms of work rate and style of play.
“This is the first real preseason for all of the sophomores and the freshmen, so it has been a new experience for about half of the team. That usually has the potential of slowing the process down but we have been able to plow ahead and everybody has kept up which is impressive when you consider that this is a new experience for so many of them.”
The Hornets will count on their versatility to lead them in 2021.
“Right now, the coaching staff is really impressed with how versatile the team is,” said Bisognano. “We have a lot of players who can play multiple positions. Gorgenyi could play literally any position on the field. Stanieich can play in the midfield or up top. Schulz can play anywhere but in goal. That kind of versatility is very impressive.”
As for opponents, the Hornets are expecting a challenge again from Newburyport who returns many players and Pentucket who dealt North Reading their only loss of the season last year.
The battle for CAL supremacy will only be part of the equation this season as the MIAA will hold state tournaments once again, however, it’s not how Hornet fans remember it. Gone are sectional tournaments, replaced with five divisional statewide brackets. The top 32 teams in each division (plus any other team who is over .500) will make the tournament. The Hornets are one of 61 teams in Div. 3, which means they could travel in the postseason anywhere as close as Lynnfield or as far away as Pittsfield. Seedings will be determined by a new power ranking system.
“I’m not really sure how this tournament format is going to work, it’s a new process for everyone,” said Bisognano. “The power seeding process has been explained, but I think that it is one of those things where we need to experience it once to truly understand how it works. I feel like we are a good enough team to be in the mix for this new tournament, but we will have to see how it all works out.
“Our job is to just win as many games as we can and let the chips fall where they may when it comes to the tournament.”
North Reading hosts rival Lynnfield on Friday at 6 p.m.