It's one or none against Bulldogs

MANCHESTER -- Before the Burr and Burton Academy defense began producing its current two-year stretch of stingy, binary code-like results -- a lengthy inventory of ones and zeros -- there were stomach-churning memories for coach Pete Mull and assistant Brenton Pinkus.

But the run, the backbone of the Bulldogs' 28-2-1 record during that span, persists, slowly diluting those memories. Even down to 10 men Monday night against Brattleboro, the reigning Division II state champs yielded only a single goal.

And, better still: that iron-clad defense still has not failed to protect a lead since the end of the 2010 season -- about as much comfort as one can find on a soccer field.

"I never thought about that, that's pretty cool," Mull said after Saturday's 3-1 win against Rutland. "All I know is there were some years where we lost in the playoffs after scoring first, so I think that, for both Brenton and I, those two games are etched deep in our memory.

"We hate the thought of those games."

The Bulldogs came close once last year against Mount Abraham in the Division II semifinals but, at 3-2, that win has proven to be an anomaly for the defending state champions. Boasting the best defense in the state in any division -- just nine goals against -- it was the only time in the past 31 games they've let in more than one goal.

Top billing for that continued prowess is down to the goal-prevention specialists: goalkeeper Mike Nolan, backs Ian Conde, Ethan Marsh and Robert England, and defensive midfielder Liam Kelleher,

"The four of us, we're all super close, we're always talking, and our practice, our work ethic comes in. We always have each other's back, we're always there to cover," Conde said.

"We don't give up good goals," Nolan said. "If we give up a goal, it's just a pile in the middle. I don't think we've given up a goal outside the six-yard box and that really speaks to our organization coming out of the back."

The Bulldogs are already on track to be even more miserly this fall. Until Monday night, they were tied with Leland & Gray and Hartford with four goals allowed in 12 games.

Rutland is the only team to score more than once against BBA, but Raiders coach Kirk Abrahamson didn't read too much into that statistic after Saturday's contest.

"We kind of scored on a deflection, so it wasn't like we had some kind of a build-up," Abrahamson said. "They're very well-organized and a lot of the credit for the defense is because they keep so much possession in the midfield. It all works together."

With Nolan as the backstop, Conde, the vocal organizer, and Kelleher, the box-to-box ball-winner who also moonlights at left back, provide the spine. On the flanks, England and Marsh bring the quickness to cover and sure feet to tackle. The group is essentially the same one forged in a two-win 2010 campaign.

"Since we've been together for so long now we know where everyone is on the field and that makes it easier," Kelleher said.

All of them appreciate the effect of their midfielders and forwards pressing the opposition higher up the pitch, pinning teams deep in pursuit of goals.

"There's no words to describe how much easier that makes it for us," England said. "With that we get time to put ourselves in order, get organized. Without that it would definitely be messier."

That solid sense of order stems from Pinkus, a native of South Africa and former defender who played professional soccer at Crystal Palace in England.

"During the games he helps Ian organize the defense," Mull said. "He's just so oriented that way, he really helps me on the bench. And that's always a big thing because one mental slip-up and that's it."

Those slip-ups can leave Nolan, the last line of defense, exposed. To be ready, the senior netminder logged hours over the summer practicing with a ball and a wall.

On the rare times the ball reaches his penalty area, he becomes the most vocal player on the field. By now -- and especially after a busy night like Monday, saving 10 shots in the rain -- he has the goal-stopping record to back it up as well.

"I put in a lot of work to get to a level where I can say I deserve to be here, I'm not just the only one in the school who can kind of do this," Nolan said. "In the summer, it's kicking the ball against the wall and catching it 200 or 300 times a day to get your hands in the right spot and that muscle memory."


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