WELLESLEY — Wellesley’s boys’ soccer team practices and plays its games about 100 yards from Sprague Elementary School.
It was at that elementary school where the Raiders’ two center backs — now senior cocaptains — met and started playing soccer together at recess.
After playing on the same competitive teams since fourth grade, whether it was through town, club or school soccer, Ryan Stuntz and Andrew D’Anieri have formed a formidable partnership for the No. 11 Raiders (8-1).
But how much have the two improved since their days at recess in kindergarten and first grade?
“I think they’re one of the best center-back partnerships in the state,” said Raiders coach Tim Mason. “As a pairing, they are as good as I’ve ever seen. Individually, it’s so key being a partnership as two central defenders, and they are as good as I’ve ever coached.”
Communication and awareness are traits all defenders need to have. It’s also difficult to coordinate chemistry if the center backs haven’t played together for long.
Stuntz and D’Anieri have never had a problem communicating, though.
“We played every day at recess together and started understanding each other. It got to the point where we don’t really have to talk too much anymore,” said Stuntz.
D’Anieri and Stuntz bring something different to the table for the Raiders’ defense, which has allowed 10 goals this season.
“Andrew is probably our best one-on-one defender,” said Stuntz. “He shuts down people. Tactically, he’s aware of everything. He’s really good at communicating in the back, and making sure everybody gets up.”
D’Anieri has played on the varsity team for three years, but didn’t start at center back until his junior year. He played as a defensive midfielder his sophomore season.
“D’Anieri played holding midfield in his sophomore year, and he’s a ball-playing central defender, which you don’t get many of,” said Mason. “It’s a great achievement for someone who is a sophomore and isn’t a 6-foot-2 kid — that just shows he can play. He’s a natural soccer player, and he’s smart enough to play at the back as well.”
According to D’Anieri, Stuntz is more of a physical center back who can challenge the opposition in the air.
“Ryan’s strong. He’s incredible in the air, he’s a really good tackler, a pure defender, but he can also move the ball really well,” said D’Anieri.
Mason, who is in his third year coaching Raiders, believes D’Anieri and Stuntz complement each other well.
“Between them I think they’ve got a great balance,” Mason said. “Stuntz is more physical, he’s good in the air, and he’s strong. Andrew is a very technical player, good with the ball at his feet, very composed. They’ve played together for a number of years and they’ve got a good understanding. If you look at all the attributes a defensive partnership needs, I think they’ve got everything you need.”
Because of the pair’s cohesion, Mason has put a lot of trust in his captains. That is why, unlike many high school teams, the Raiders play a flat back four without a stopper or sweeper.
“A lot of teams play with a sweeper or stopper,” Mason said. “I think it’s important that in the 21st century, you’ve got to be able to start from the back. A lot of players in the back don’t want to ‘play’ because they’re afraid of conceding goals. Our philosophy is about playing. That’s me as a player and me as a coach. It starts with our goalkeeper and our defenders.”
Mason didn’t nix the idea that having someone in front or behind the center backs is a bad idea. But D’Anieri and Stuntz’s excellent chemistry means Mason doesn’t have to worry about that.
“Unless you have a balance like we do, I think sweeper/stopper is a good option,” Mason said. “But with the players that we’ve got, us playing with a flat back four allows us to start from the back and allows us to break up attacking players and attack from the back.”
Games of the week
No. 6 Framingham at No. 8 Wellesley, Thursday, 3:45 p.m. — This Bay State Conference matchup should close. Framingham and Wellesley each have one blemish — both lost to No. 4 Needham by one goal (Framingham 3-2, and Wellesley 2-1). It’s clearly the matchup of the week.
No. 5 Silver Lake at No. 15 Hingham, Monday, 3:30 p.m. — The Harbormen (8-1-1, 6-1-1) sit right behind Silver Lake in the Patriot League’s Keenan Division. The Lakers (9-0-1, 8-0) handed Hingham its only loss, in early September. The Harbormen hope to return the favor in a home game that should be good.
No. 16 Bedford at Acton-Boxboro, Thursday, 4 p.m. — The Colonials (6-1-3) are on top of the Dual County Large division. Bedford (8-2) had some impressive results last week, but it will be a difficult game for the 16th-ranked Buccaneers. A win for the Colonials could catapult them back into the Top 20.