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South Hadley boys soccer falls to Palmer, misses postseason

PALMER — Facing a veteran and senior-laden team, the South Hadley boys soccer team was already at a bit of a disadvantage in a must-win contest Thursday night.

But with injury chipping away at the Tigers’ production and senior leadership, Palmer took further advantage in a 4-0 victory at Legion Field.

Playing without leading scorer Nate Flachs, who broke his foot Monday against Southwick, South Hadley struggled to sustain an offensive attack.

After surviving a scoreless first half, the Tigers allowed four second-half tallies. This marks the first time since 2009 that South Hadley missed out on postseason play.

“It’s been a while since we missed, but we had some bad luck this year,” senior captain Hieu Dennis said. “We came in here pretty confident we’d get another win, but it just didn’t happen. We battled hard in the first half, just as we have the last few games to put ourselves in a position to make it.”

The Tigers (7-9-2) put just four shots on Palmer keeper Owen Roche.

“We have sophomores up front, and they’re just not fast enough to get behind the back line, all seniors for them,” South Hadley coach Jij Mercer said. “Losing Nate for this game certainly hurt us.”

The first three Palmer (9-4-4) goals came on similar plays, as Connor Roche placed throw-ins directly in front of the net. Roche set up from between 10 to 20 yards out on all three.

Eric Droz converted the first chance eight minutes into the half. Matt Blanchette put in the next two within a five-minute span to give the Panthers a 3-0 advantage just 17 minutes into the half.

“We just couldn’t defend the long throw-ins,” Mercer said. “If this was a normal-width field, it wouldn’t have been a huge issue. But that play was to their advantage.”

Dennis said, “They were just taller, stronger, more physical than we were on those plays.”

Alex Poindexter completed the scoring with just over two minutes to play. Roche sent a free kick from the Palmer defensive side into the box. Goalie Chris Zuchowski came out to deflect it, but Poindexter collected and placed it into the empty net.

Zuchowski stopped eight shots for South Hadley, including a diving save early in the second half. Backup Colin Paleologopoulos didn’t make a save in about 10 minutes of action.

The South Hadley back line of Dennis, Cam Della Torre, Zack Simon and Ben Gardner held early to withstand a quick-moving Panthers attack.

South Hadley rallied from a 2-5-1 start to put itself in position to earn a playoff berth. However, a 1-6-1 record in league play ended up being the difference.

“We’re so young and a lot of these guys were just learning this year how to play at the varsity level,” Mercer said. “Our league is filled with quality seniors on the other teams. And that’s a real physical disadvantage. But I think this season will help us build something.”

“I’m really proud that we were able to take it to the second half of our last game,” Mercer added. “You can’t ask for much more than that from these guys. We just had too many one-goal losses, but we did the best we could.”

The loss marked the final high school game for seniors Dennis, Zuchowski, Flachs, Simon, Gardner, Alex Ziomek and Nathan Garon.

“I’m going to miss being a part of a team like this,” Dennis said. “I run track, but it’s not quite the same because that’s more of an individual sport. I’ve known Coach Mercer since I was about 3. Every member of this team is a great friend.”

Michael Wilkinson can be reached at mwilkinson@gazettenet.com.

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