Soccer notebook: Painful loss in 2022 drives Billerica boys

BILLERICA — Billerica’s boys soccer program has established itself as one of the state’s elite, and its recent success is somewhat newfound.

“We can score goals,” said Billerica soccer coach John Vassallo. “So that helps. We’ve got some guys that we moved around, couple guys that played midfield last year that are playing central defense this year, and we have a goalie who’s a junior and is coming into his own. He has been tremendous also.”

Last fall, the Indians reached the Div. 2 playoff field as the No. 11 seed with a record of 11-2-5, only to be bounced in the Round of 32 (a 2-1 loss to Nauset).

“It really helped motivate us, the loss last year,” said Vassallo. “Because we had a home game, so we thought we were going to be able to go a little bit further than we did. But reality kicked in, finding a program like Nauset who has always been really good. They knew how to win in the playoffs, and we didn’t. These  guys dedicated themselves for the summer, and said our goal is to win the league, then get a good draw for the tournament, get further than the first round. We want to win a few games in the tournament, and I think our ranking will help that. The loss definitely motivated us (the last) year.”

Now Billerica has a firm grasp on the top overall seed in this year’s Div. 2 power rankings at 16-1-1, with a team rating of 3.2322.

The showing is due to emergence of stars such as senior midfielder and reigning Merrimack Valley Conference (Small) Player of the Year Brian Jones (10 goals, six assists), and other standouts such as junior forwards Jason Xintaropoulos (12 goals, nine assists in-league play), Ryan Jacob (25 goals, 10 assists), and goaltender Riley Donovan (seven goals surrendered, 6.5 shutouts).

The Indians have found a winning formula, and it starts with their core group.

“Last year in the playoffs, we were hoping we’d make it further,” said Jones. “When we lost to Nauset in the first round, it wasn’t what we were hoping for. Then this year, we won our first game. Our second game, we lost, and that kind of flipped the switch for us. We kind of realized how everything is supposed to be picked up, and ever since then, we haven’t lost a game.”

Billerica has dominated its Merrimack Valley Conference games, with impressive victories over North Andover (a 3-0 win Oct. 12) and Lowell (1-0 Oct. 17).

“It’s definitely good to keep track of (the seedings), know where you are according to everything else,” Jones said. “But we can’t let it get to our heads. Just because we’re the one-seed, it doesn’t mean we can’t have our best game. But you can see it, every other team wants to beat us since we’re so highly-ranked.”

The team’s lone loss was a 3-0 defeat to Bedford in early September, which sits second among Div. 2 schools in the power rankings at 9-2-4 with a team rating of 3.0843. Vassallo believes that his group has grown from that game. A rematch with the Buccaneers is possible.

“I hope (for a second battle) anyways,” chuckled Vassallo. “They actually gave us a good eye-opener, where it was our second game of the season, so we were trying to figure out our defense. They were much more mature than us playing-wise. My group was young and inexperienced at that level, so it was actually a good game for us, where we learned a lot about how to play defense, and how to get going. It motivated us, because every once in a while, one of the kids will bring up the Bedford game.”

When the pairings are unveiled Nov. 1, Billerica will be ready for whichever opponent comes its way.

“We need some rest, because we have some injuries and we’re a little bit tired,” Vassallo said. “I think the seniors and the captains have to step up, and say this is where we worked so hard — to get here. I think it’s about seeing if we can keep it going.”

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