Editor’s Note: Josh Finkle is a 17-year-old senior and three-sport athlete at Littleton High School. He was a standout goaltender this fall for the Crusaders, who reached the New Hampshire Division IV state final. Finkle recounts the 2020 pandemic high school soccer season, one unlike any other.

Making it to the state championship game in any sport is a great feat, win or loss, but to do it in the midst of a global pandemic, that’s a whole different story. The exact story I am about to tell you.

My teammates and I were cautiously optimistic throughout the summer that we would get to have a soccer season. Some of us got up at six in the morning five days a week to run three miles before we even knew if we would get a chance to play soccer, and for me, get my senior season in.

We had lost the last two years in the semifinals, and I was beyond sick of it. This year felt like the year we could make history here at LHS — the first varsity boys team to raise a soccer banner.

On Aug. 7, we got the text. Fellow captain Landon Bromley and I were told to start a group chat with this season’s team and anyone we thought would come out for the team, to inform them we would be playing, and when we were starting. We had a late start this year, but we were motivated and determined. We worked very hard in the shortened preseason because our first game was against “the team of the north” Profile.

We play them twice a year, back-to-back weeks on homecoming weekends, which we didn’t get a chance to do this year. We did still play them twice, however. We were all so grateful to be having a season and we were ready to play Profile. We wanted to play our best game of the year every time we played a game this season because we didn’t know if our season would end or not. We took it day by day because nobody knew if we would play one game, let alone the 13 we luckily got to play.

It didn’t take too long to get used to the extensive COVID protocols. Those being the following: wear a mask until your temperature has been taken, mandatory temperature checks before practice, getting on the bus, and before games, hand sanitizer before getting on the bus, wear masks the whole time on a bus, no doubling up on the bus, wear a mask on the bench when not in the game — those being just a few.

At first, they were a nuisance, but as time went on we realized it was what we needed to do to have a season.

After beating Profile in the first game, I was surprised. It felt as if they were heavily favored and we were not because we are young in the attacking third of our team, our defense was still as strong as ever, and they make my job as easy as possible.

Even in the pandemic, Profile and our team were the favorites in the north. The rivalry was still going strong.

The Monday after we played Berlin and we lost, and we hate losing. From that day on, my teammates and I wanted to be the best we could be and play the best we ever have, not only for our team but also to show the freshmen how to compete and play in big games.

Let me tell you, that paid off.

Going into the playoffs at 8-2 was pretty good. We didn’t go into this season with high hopes of anything, but our championship aspirations grew and grew as each day went on. We had a great defense and our goal scorers were stepping up when it mattered. We had some good wins this season, which we hoped to use as momentum going into the playoffs’ uncertainty.

The playoffs were in four pods, by region, and seeds were randomly selected. We had a first-round bye and played the winner of Groveton and Pittsburg. We figured it would be Pittsburg as they were 8-1 with their only loss coming to us, the final score 1-0. They ended up winning as we thought, and we would play them two days later, on October 28th. We knew they would pack the 18 and hope to get a lucky goal to beat us.

We were the better team all around, but they were on a nine-game winning streak. We scored two in the first half, but our best defensive player, Landon Bromley, broke his nose 15 minutes in, so we had to win this without him, no easy task. They scored early on me in the second half, but we responded with three unanswered goals and ultimately won 5-1. Our leading scorer also was hurt and did not play much.

We would be playing Colebrook in the quarters, and we were not liking our chances. Parker Paradice’s back wouldn’t be ready in two days, and we had no idea about Landon’s nose and if Amazon Prime could get him a mask in time for our game Saturday.

I was confident, however. I knew the freshmen would step up and so would everyone else if those two were deemed unfit to play. Then we found out that Colebrook had some COVID cases. So we didn’t even know if we would play them now. It was a long two days waiting for a decision on our game, and we ultimately ended up not playing and getting to move on to our fifth straight final-four appearance — this time in Profile due to COVID-19 concerns.

Going back to the Colebrook situation, it just goes to show how quickly everything changes. All I could do was feel for my friends on the boys and girls team up in Colebrook.

Most days, it felt like a normal season for the most part. Until the end of the season when school after school was reporting COVID cases. So far, we were very fortunate not to have any COVID issues, and we were very thankful for ourselves, coaches, school community, and faculty for all doing our part, keeping us safe and able to play.

It was time for round three, the final four versus Profile. Landon got his mask and Parker was fired up. So was our whole team. The feeling between Profile and Littleton on the soccer field was pure hatred. My freshman year, they beat us in the championship and we wanted some revenge. The best part of all of this is that their head coach teaches at our school.

Every soccer season, before my days at school started, I would always go into his room and talk about previous games, or upcoming games against each other. He also would hang a Profile jersey in his room when we played them.

Each player was given two tickets for immediate family to attend the Profile game, something we didn’t like to hear but managed because we just wanted to play.

Going into it, we had a full week off due to the Colebrook cancellation, which was perfect because we knew it would take everyone being in tip-top form to win this game. They had the player of the year in Max Ritter, someone who we needed to man-mark and take out of the game. We had just the man for the job, Evan Piette.

Evan does not back down from any challenge and plays better in the playoffs or big games. His nickname was Playoff Evan. Evan marked Max the whole game and did a great job. They scored 10 minutes in as we didn’t mark up on a corner and they headed it past me. After that, they tested me many more times, but I knew I needed to do anything I could not to let them go up 2-0.

Heading into halftime, our coach Luke Driscoll was confident in our chances. He knew their goalie was one of the better ones we played all year, but he was also a rookie; he was a senior and it was his first year in goal. We thought he would make a mistake, and he finally did. We jumped all over it and barely snuck it in. We were tied 1-1.

Eight minutes later, we had a corner, and it was time to run a new play we made for our freshman phenom Joelvy Perez. Grady Hadlock, his freshman counterpart, scored the first goal, and he wanted this one to be all his. We called out “ISO,” and all I could do was hope and pray. I saw JP run across the box, get his foot on it and the crowd erupted.

The freshmen stepped up at the biggest part of our season and we were ever so grateful. They had chance after chance, but our defense stood strong and we came out with a huge win. As well as a great feeling of beating Profile three times in a year.

We celebrated for the five-minute bus ride home, but it was time to get back to work.

Sunapee was our next challenge. A team that doesn’t let in goals and scores many. There would be no fan restrictions for this game. The tough part of this was traveling two hours to Sunapee’s home field. A slight advantage but so be it, we have made it through an unimaginable season and it was time to put it all out there for my final game.

It was nice to be back in a championship game, months after having the basketball championship game ripped out of our hands just hours before tip-off. It was devastating, to say the least. Now it was time to finally compete for one, in the middle of a global pandemic, who would’ve thought?

I felt like we were just as good as they were; they just had two fluke goals and shut us down with their six defenders. I made 11 saves to keep us in it and we tested them time after time; we just couldn’t buy a goal on Nov. 7. I was happy for Harper Flint, number 7 on Sunapee. He and I had spent every Sunday of this fall on the same baseball team.

It was a tough pill to swallow, losing in my final game. I feel like we left it all out there and played good soccer. They didn’t score until the second half and that’s something to be proud of. I am most proud of my team for making it this far and having a great season.

I will be ever so grateful to have been able to have a soccer season in the middle of these rough times. I think it will be a great story to tell years from now to my kids and family and reminiscing with my teammates. I want to say thank you to my group of 12 seniors who battled everyday day, the early morning running, the late nights at the fields, and for all the memories to last a lifetime.

Finally, I want to thank our coach for making us the best athletes we can be and making us the best version of ourselves. I will forever cherish my time in net for Littleton, as it started halfway through my freshman year up until now.

COVID season will be something I never forget.

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