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Dan Shaughnessy

The slipper slips off

Newton North’s Cinderella run in boys’ soccer tournament is over

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / November 17, 2010

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LYNN — Time to take down the nets and store the cleats. The Tigers can shelve the peroxide and let their hair go back to its natural color. Soccer season is over at Newton North High School. The 19th-seeded Cinderella-men were beaten by top-seeded (19-1-3) New Bedford, 2-1, in double overtime, in the Division 1 EMass final at Manning Field last night.

North’s boys extended their season far past all expectations, that’s for sure. Newton is a traditionally strong soccer town, but the program has been flat lately. The boys won only three games after their 33-year-old coach died suddenly last year. They had to scratch and claw just to qualify for the tournament this season.

And then they went on one of those magical runs that get better every year as high school heroes lurch toward middle age and tell stories of the glory days.

Early in the 2010 soccer season, the Tigers were 1-3 under rookie coach Roy Dow. They finished with a 7-5-6 regular-season record, plodding toward third place in the Carey Division of the Bay State Conference. Five of their seven wins were against teams that finished under .500. The Tigers were seeded 19th out of 26 schools in the Division 1 North sectional.

Then they got hot. Honoring a tourney-time tradition, players dyed their hair blond, and they won five games in eight days. They beat four teams that finished in the Globe Top 20. They beat conference rival Brookline, 2-1, to win the North title game.

The whole thing was wacky and improbable. They beat Dual County power Acton-Boxborough without a shot on goal (thank you, penalty kicks). They beat Lexington when Tim Stanton, who had only one goal all year, scored twice. They ended up winning almost as many playoff games (six) as regular-season games (seven).

But the slipper wouldn’t fit in the finale. North was outplayed in the first half, dominated in the second half (tying the game when senior captain Jeremy Gurvitz scored off a pass from Jackson Moss-Hawkins with 24 minutes left in regulation), and finally succumbed when New Bedford’s Fernando Baptista scored on a spectacular shot with 2:39 left in the second overtime.

“We want to get the program back where it belongs — one of the top programs in Eastern Mass.,’’ said Dow, who came to North after serving as an assistant coach at Tufts. “When you’re a 19th seed, you’ve got a built-in chip on your shoulder. This group of kids went through a lot, but in the end they showed they belonged.’’

Two and three decades ago, soccer in Newton was like football in Texas. Boys and girls. It was part of the culture. Tigers teams annually went deep into the state tournament and the North girls were ranked No. 1 in the country in 1989.

“It was the driving force in the city for the longest time,’’ said T.J. Williams, who worked at North for 32 years, 27 as athletic director, most of those as varsity soccer coach (girls and boys, but not simultaneously). “It was a curse and a blessing because expectations were so high and the kids were so driven. There was so much competition to make the varsity and to be successful.

“It was very high-profile. It was a big deal. It died down a little, but it never disappeared. It’s always been a part of Newton youth and culture.’’

At the end of his career, Williams handpicked a worthy successor: Ucal McKenzie.

A native of Jamaica and a guidance counselor at North, McKenzie was a sculptor of teen souls. Always upbeat, ever-able to pick up a kid who was having a bad day, Ucal was one of the most popular figures in the windowless North building on Lowell Ave. He coached the boys varsity soccer team for two seasons and was looking forward to working with this group again when he died while playing soccer in South Boston in May 2009.

“He made such an impression on the school community and was such a wonderful person,’’ said Newton athletic director Tom Giusti. “I think his death took a lot out of that team.’’

There were 12 seniors on the North squad this year, including Gurvitz and Gianluca Viscomi, who played for Ucal as sophomores.

McKenzie is remembered fondly at North. Some kids wear Jamaican ribbons on their backpacks and there are “Ucal RIP’’ buttons bearing the image of his gentle, smiling face. At Thanksgiving break, North soccer alums unite to play in the Ucal Friendly. North just opened its $200 million high school and there’s been lobbying to have one of the new fields named in Ucal’s honor.

“I know he’s up there looking down on us and he’s proud,’’ said Viscomi. “He set a great example. We wear shirts that say ‘better, better, better’ because that’s always what he said. And that what this team did this year. We just kept playing better and when we got to the tournament, we beat all the top seeds.’’

“It sounds like a cliché, I know, but this team really was a family,’’ said senior captain Gurvitz.

When you are 18 years old and you’ve just lost the biggest game of your life, it’s no fun listening to your parents tell you how great you did. It’s hard to embrace the life lesson in those first hours after defeat.

But it’ll all be good when they gather to play in future Ucal Friendlies. Memories of the magic autumn of 2010 will never dim for the bottle-blond Cinderella-men of Newton North.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.