SULLIVAN — Every time he takes a look around the soccer fields behind Sumner Memorial High School, Tom Hart finds another reason to be excited.
As a head coach, Hart, who is in his second year at the helm of the Sumner boys’ team, is always searching for another wrinkle he can throw at opponents. With the athleticism, talent and experience the Tigers are bringing to the table this fall, he has a seemingly endless array of options.
“I see a lot of different players who can bring something to us,” Hart said. “We have so many things to be optimistic about.”
There certainly is no shortage of exuberance at Sumner, where players, fans, coaches and administrators are eagerly anticipating the upcoming season. With nine starters back from a unit that produced the program’s best season since 1989 a year ago, the Tigers are set to be a team to watch in 2019.
Sumner established itself as one of Class C North’s top soccer programs a year ago, going 14-2 and reaching the regional semifinals for the first time in nearly three decades. With an average of 7.3 goals per game, the Tigers had one of the state’s most prolific offenses.
One of the most memorable moments from last season came in the Tigers’ showdown with Lee Academy in the regional quarterfinals. That game saw Sumner pull out a double-overtime thriller when Damon Warren scored with just three seconds left on the clock to seal a 3-2 win and avoid a penalty shootout.
“That Lee game is something I don’t think anyone involved will ever forget, and looking back on it, the whole season was incredibly special and so much fun,” Hart said. “The culture of our program really evolved and took a step forward.”
Sumner will be strong in defense this year with veteran Alex Rumill in goal and defenders Dylan Bernier, Bryce Coombs and Zackary Coughlan back from last year’s squad. The Tigers conceded just 1.6 goals per game last year and held opponents to two or fewer goals in 13 of their 16 contests.
The Tigers have a variety of midfield threats in Eduardo Figueroa, Silas Goldfarb and Aidan Weaver. Yet Sumner will have some rearranging to do in the midfield as it looks to replace the creativity and production of Orlando Herrera, one of the team’s top players last year.
“Orlando with the ball at his feet was like somebody else holding it in their hands. The game just came that naturally to him,” Hart said. “At the same time, even though the middle of our field is still a question mark, we’re also starting to see some of those questions get answered in practice.”
There are no such question marks up front, where Sumner returns Warren and Caelan Billings. Those players found the net in nearly every game last season as the leading scorers for the Tigers’ potent offense.
Warren was particularly dominant last year, scoring 51 goals to break the Maine high school boys’ record for the most in a single season. This year, Hart believes the senior can be even better — even if opponents dedicate much of their game plans to stopping him.
“Damon isn’t going to sneak up on anybody this year, but there are some things about his game that he realizes he can develop even more to make himself harder to track,” Hart said. “He’s working hard on things like his spacing to keep getting better. … He’s a really selfless player, and I wish people could see that about him on a daily basis.”
Sumner’s program also boasts a strong incoming freshman class with three players, Nick Andrews, Henry Bunch and Billy Wray, earning spots on the 17-man varsity roster. After watching from the sidelines and grandstands as the Tigers’ emerged as a standout team in Class C North last year, those players will have a chance to make their own marks this season.
“We have a lot of incoming freshmen who watched it last year and are motivated to keep that going,” Hart said. “Even though they weren’t a part of it themselves, they saw it up close and can add something for us.”
With Washington Academy dropping down from Class B North, Orono and Houlton returning many key players from last year and Fort Kent looking to defend its regional title, Sumner will have plenty of competition come playoff time. Yet even though making a Northern Maine title run will be a challenge, the Tigers have an edge on their C North counterparts when it comes to returning talent.
“We lost some important players, but looking at the rest of Class C, you have a lot of teams who have lost five or six key guys,” Hart said. “If that were us right now, I’d be going crazy.”
Sumner will begin the regular season at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, when it faces Narraguagus in Harrington. That game, the second of a boys’-girls’ doubleheader between the two schools, will follow the girls’ game at 11 a.m.
After the season Sumner had last year, folks all throughout eastern Hancock County have had that date circled on their calendars for quite a while. A victory against Narraguagus, one of the Tigers’ biggest rivals, would be an ideal way for Hart’s team to pick up right where it left off late last October.
“You have two school districts that are really close by, and those kids know each other really well and have played against each other for years,” Hart said. “I know our kids can’t wait to get out there Saturday and get this season started.”