By Hector Longo
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Those lonely, balmy September afternoons are long gone, transformed into chilly, often frantic November eves.
North Andover High senior Marc Patnaude would have it no other way. In fact, this is the time of year the Knights’ goalkeeper lusts after.
“Soccer season is so different, so special,” said Patnaude, after he and the Knights protected a 1-0 lead for 79-plus minutes to knock off Belmont in the Division 2 North quarterfinal here at Walsh Stadium last night.
“The level of intensity continues to rise as you get that much closer to (a state title). You can feel it out there. I love it.”
Backboned by Patnaude and electrified by scoring machine Mike Skarbelis, the Knights have steamrolled their way to 20 straight victories, needing four more for the perfect season.
But all those early season blowouts, when Patnaude could hardly find a friend, are in the rear-view mirror now.
And he’s dialed in.
“I like to turn the pressure on me into excitement. There’s no need to be worried about anything out there,” said Patnaude. “In a way, I feel like I even get a little lucky out there when the game’s on the line.”
Patnaude, who also skis and plays baseball for the Knights, had to feel a bit fortunate when a Belmont bid for the first-half equalizer dribbled squarely off the right post and was whisked away safely by a defender.
But the Knight keeper was pretty darn good in the final five minutes, reacting to a couple weird bounces during scrambles in the box when things got a little busy. Saves 10 and 11 on the night were as steady as they come.
“There was all kinds of foot traffic,” said Patnaude. “Those last two chances, I probably didn’t see until they were a yard or two in front of me.”
North Andover’s lone offense off a Belmont defense centered around shutting down Skarbelis came in the opening minute, with Skarbelis setting up Andrew Valdes on the goal.
Belmont was a bit shell-shocked. And North Andover first-year coach Kyle Wood was a little worried.
“They’re a team that is most comfortable when they are pressing the action,” said Wood. “What better reason to press than being behind by a goal early.”
But the Knights never panicked, and in fact got the better of the chances.
“You know I start 11 seniors, and all but one of the guys who played are seniors,” added Wood. “These guys have been there, and they play the game like they are on a mission.”
Well, the mission continues for the defending sectional champs. Saturday at noon, the top seeds face No. 4 Concord-Carlisle at Manning Field in Lynn.
North Andover 1, Belmont 0
Division 2 North Quarterfinals
Goals: Andrew Valdes
Assists: Mike Skarbelis
Saves: NA — Marc Patnaude 11; B — 13
Belmont (13-4-3): 0 0 — 0
North Andover (20-0): 1 0 — 1