DIXFIELD – As a kid, Colby Knapp was a regular at Dirigo boys’ soccer games.

The Cougars had built a formidable program and were regularly one of the top clubs in the Mountain Valley Conference.

“My brother was playing then,” said Knapp, a senior midfielder. “So I went to every game. They had Derrick Gilbert as their goalie. They did amazing going into the playoffs. I’ve always wanted to do that, but we’ve never gotten that far.”

Instead, the current crop of Cougars haven’t seen that level of success or the respect Dirigo soccer once boasted.

“It was pretty unstable,” Adam Law says about his first year with the program. “We didn’t get along that much on the field.”

Dennis Hanson had been part of those successful seasons under Fred Conlogue. While working with the middle school and JV teams, he couldn’t help but watch the program’s demise.

“I just watched the program going the wrong way,” he said. “I graduated in 1995, and I played for Fred. We were a powerhouse. We were always right up there.”

Hanson wanted to bring that luster back to the program. So that was his first order of business when he became coach last fall.

“I told the kids, ‘We’re going to get the respect back for this program,'” he said. “It’s not so much about winning games, but getting that respect. When you walk on the field, other teams know that any day this team can win a game.”

Dirigo went 13-2-1 in 2001 and reached the Western C final for the second time under Conlogue. That was his last season coaching. The Cougars success plummeted the next four years. After a 5-9 season in 2002, Dirigo went 2-9-3, 4-10 and 3-10-1.

“It was pretty frustrating for all of us,” said Law.

Dirigo enjoyed a complete turnaround last year, going 8-4-2 and finishing seventh in Western C, earning a playoff berth for the first time in years.

“We used to only focus on conditioning in practice,” said Knapp. “Now we focus on skills, which we should be doing.”

The Cougars improved their skills, rebuilt their confidence and reshaped their image to become a competitive team again. They battled some of the best teams in the MVC like Telstar and Mt. Abram. A couple heart-breaking losses kept their win total from being higher.

“We were in every game,” said Hanson. “Georges Valley, we held them to two goals. Not many teams in the MVC held Georges Valley to two goals.”

This year, they hope for more of the same. The Cougars lost experience in goal and on defense, but have plenty of talent back. Jon Smith was an all-conference forward, while Knapp and Law are also four-year starters. Wes Gagnon, Brett Staples, Larry Briggs and Erik Kersey make up a strong senior group.

“We knew we needed to step it up last year,” said Knapp of the seniors. “He didn’t depend so much on the senior class last year as he did the junior class. He told us that up front – that we needed to step up. So we put the pressure on ourselves.”

Smith, Staples and Dylan Castonguay were part of the state championship wrestling team, while Gagnon, Law, Knapp and Kersey were members of the basketball team that reached the Western C final.

Archie Ray moves into goal from the defense. The rest of the fullbacks are new, but the midfield and front-line should be the team’s strength.

“The midfield is strong with Adam and Colby,” said Hanson. “Up front is strong with Eric Bolduc and Tyler Gates. They’re two sophomores that are just outstanding players.”

Even with last year’s success, the Cougars feel like they’ve still got something to prove. The program has 30 players this year, including eight promising freshmen. So the Cougars already see the tide turning dramatically.

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