NEWTON — Roy Dow is really laughing now.
A two-hour practice session under an attentive sun is wrapping up with a 10-minute cool-down. It wasn’t the most glorifying of practices — it's only been a week since high school soccer restarted and it's hard to hide the rust — but if anything, Dow, in his third year at the helm of the Newton North High boys’ squad, is known for being cordial, win or lose.
His players were stretching, spread out in a circle, and trying to impress their coach with knowledge of the European soccer circuit. But somehow the conversation turned to the US women’s national team and stars Alex Morgan and Hope Solo, and the jokes — to be expected from a young team with just five returning varsity players — are too silly for Dow to keep a straight face.
He burst into laughter.
At 27, Dow is the second youngest coach in the Bay State Conference, which is widely considered one of the most competitive soccer divisions in the state. And yet he's already formed a reputation for being a crafty and inventive coach, and someone to whom teenage kids can respond.
“He just does it the right way,” said Wellesley High coach Tim Mason, the league's youngest skipper at 25. “He has a good mind for the game, and he just tries to play it the way it should be played.”
The Tigers aren’t expected to win a state title this fall, nor are they among the favorites. Dow lost the majority of last year’s roster to graduation, and then suffered an additional blow when four of his top players left due to a new rule by US Soccer that no longer allows athletes to compete for both their school and academy teams. It’s a regulation that many high school coaches don’t agree with, but Dow knows the players aren’t to blame for chasing what they think is best for developing their skills, despite the effect it has on Newton North.
The Tigers, though, are still filled with hope, for Dow has done more with less in the past.
“We think if we can make it to the tournament, we can definitely make a run,” said senior captain Robert Morgan.
Dow’s players say he brings a certain level of energy, an immeasurable spark that took a squad that was one of the last to qualify for the 2010 postseason tournament (they finished at 7-5-6, earning the No. 19 seed) all the way to the Division 1 state semifinals.
That team was often out-possessed and out-chanced in late tournament games, but the Tigers were never out-hustled or out-smarted. They were accused of playing kick-and-run soccer by other coaches, but the scoreboard kept flashing numbers in their favor.
Dow didn’t have a single Globe All-Scholastic that season, and just two conference all-stars.
Now, he says, he doesn’t even talk about the 2010 team. There's no one left from that squad, and “I’m not looking at chasing that one season,” said Dow, a Belmont High alum who played one season at Wheaton College and was a three-year assistant at Tufts. “We're building a new one.”
Through Wednesday, Dow had hardly set up any offensive drills during practices. And when he did, bringing the goals within 30 yards of each other for a small-sided game in which each goalie’s primary responsibility is to dig balls out of the net, starting keeper Andrew Leaper was scored on just once in 10 minutes.
The key for the Tigers, as it has been since Dow arrived, will be tight defense. They pile numbers in their own third and do anything to get the ball up the field.
Some kick-and-run, sure, but it's kick-and-run with a purpose, Dow says, and it’s hard to question a coach who lost just two games by more than one goal last season. Only two other teams in the state scored as infrequently as Newton North (1.1 goals per game) while avoiding a losing record.
“As long as we don’t let up goals, we’re still in the game,” Morgan said. “That’s our motto. All you need is that one chance.”
And when the players were struggling with their touch during Wednesday’s practice, or shooting wide of the net, or playing the wrong pass and making mental mistakes, it didn’t discourage them.
It’s only August. And they trust their leader.
“I’d say he’s a different coach than anyone I’ve had,” said junior Stanley Alves, who scored the only goal in a win over Canton during a preseason scrimmage, and should be the Tigers’ top offensive threat this fall.
“His mentality is on a high level. He wants us to get to this point,” Alves says, raising his hand high in the air, “and even higher.”
Five teams to watch
Concord-Carlisle: The Patriots lost impact players in Mike O’Brien and Chris Walker-Jacks to graduation and Stephen Yen to injury (although he could return late this fall), but still return a strong nucleus that includes an exciting group of sophomores for coach Ray Pavlik.
Groton-Dunstable Regional: The Crusaders were a force last year on the way to a Division 2 state title, but they lost a lot to graduation, and have big shoes to fill without dynamic forward Kyle Romich.
Lincoln-Sudbury Regional: The Warriors return just a single starter, junior Tyler Barnes, from last year’s impressive group, and coach Dave Hosford expects growing pains, but when the tourney arrives, his team is always in the hunt.
Needham: With the return of senior striker Mac Steeves, one of the state’s best players who opted not to play for his soccer academy team, coach Don Brock (in his 46th season) has a senior-laden squad that can’t be ignored as a Division 1 favorite.
Newton South: John Conte did wonders with the Lions in his first season on the bench, impressing area coaches who believe he’s turning the program around. And with a strong group of younger talent, Conte’s squad could surprise.