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Middleborough soccer coach aims for second chance

MIDDLEBOROUGH -- Jim Braga wants his Middleborough High School boys' soccer team to have another crack at the state championship.

Last year, in the title game at Worcester State College, Middleborough and Westborough were battling in a scoreless tie until the final minute of the match.

The game never reached overtime. The ball took a freak bounce over the final Middleborough defender, and Westborough's Cris Banks, the state's highest-scoring player, took advantage, slamming home the winning shot in a 1-0 heartbreaker for the Sachems.

However, Braga earned the Globe's Division 2 Coach of the Year award for his efforts guiding the team deep into the postseason for the first time.

Braga, who coached Middleborough for a couple years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, returned as head coach four years ago, and since then the Sachems have always made it to the postseason.

In 2001, Middleborough lost in the preliminary round. The following year the Sachems won the preliminary game, but lost in the first round of the South sectional.

Last year, for the first time in school history, Middleborough won the sectional and Eastern Massachusetts crowns before bowing out in the Division 2 state championship game.

''It was quite a run," said Braga, whose Sachems are off to a 9-4-1 start this season and destined for another postseason tournament berth.

Interestingly, Braga never played soccer in high school.

''When I attended Middleborough High, it didn't have a soccer team. We played some in gym class," he said. ''I picked up the game when I was overseas in the service. But I was never a good player."

He began coaching when his children began playing youth soccer, and after he was hired to teach at his alma mater a few years ago, the soccer coach left for another school and he took over the program for the second time.

Middleborough athletic director David Paling says it is Braga's personality that is his biggest asset.

''I think Jim is respected for his soccer knowledge," said Paling. ''But I think it is his laid-back attitude that draws the youngsters to him and they respect him for it. What I mean is, he never loses his composure and he keeps his humor in difficult situations."

Braga, though, credits the players he has had on his team.

''We've had some great players come through here," he said. ''We've been very fortunate.

''Another reason for our success is the youth soccer program in Middleborough," said Braga. ''There are more than 400 youngsters involved, and by the time I get them in high school, they have been well-schooled."

Last year, the on-field leader was Mike Delaney, a pesky midfielder who earned Globe All-Scholastic honors. He was a two-year captain and an offensive force, notching 44 goals and 19 assists during his career, including 17 goals and 8 assists as a senior.

This year he is playing his soccer at Stonehill College.

Picking up the scoring slack for Middleborough High this year is Svetlin Ignatov, a native of Bulgaria who has 16 goals and 11 assists heading into the stretch run this year. His resume includes a six-goal game against Scituate.

As a junior last season, Ignatov seemed a sure bet to overtake Delaney as the Sachems' leading scorer, with 10 goals halfway into the season. But then he suffered a broken foot, keeping him out of action the rest of the season, including the run to the state finals.

''He has great foot skills," said Braga. ''He is so fleet on the field, and he makes the most of his opportunities."

Another point machine for Middleborough this season is senior Joe Nevin, who has 12 goals and 3 assists, including all six of Middleborough's goals in a Patriot League game against Rockland.

''None of his goals were easy. He worked for every one," said Braga. ''It was one of those games where everything goes right. It's like when you are playing basketball and you can't miss a shot. You think the basket is 10 times bigger than it is. He had that sort of game."

Braga said Nevin has really stepped up his game this year. ''He has really come along. He has had a change in attitude. He is not so timid as he was last year," said Braga. ''He's not afraid to get in a crowd and get bumped around going for a header. He'll do well as long as he can keep his head in the game."

Joining the list of scoring threats for the Sachems is one of the team captains, Nick Kelly, who has 10 goals and 9 assists this year. ''We just hope he's going to be OK," said Braga. ''Nick pulled a muscle in his stomach at practice, and we hope he'll be back soon. It's killing him not to be on the field."

Middleborough's other captain, Jack Hartford, is the key defender for the Sachems. ''He runs the defense and reads the field real well," said Braga. However, Hartford has moved up to sweeper due to the loss of Brett Baptiste, and David DiNicola has stepped into Hartford's place in the lineup.

And goaltender Matt Twigg has been a solid addition to the team, yielding just 1.5 goals per game while steadily improving, his coach said. 

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