Martha’s Vineyard Over the Hill soccer team stays unbeaten

Gilson "Fire Horse" DaSilva spins away from a FIMA foe. Rudy Fernandez backs up the play. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The mighty, mighty Vineyard FC (VFC) Master’s soccer club stands alone this week, a Colossus astride its world.

The over-40 Island team is undefeated (4-0) and in first place in the Division Six South league of the New England Over The Hill Soccer League. The Islanders defeated a scrappy FIMA FC club 2-1 in a battle of NEOTHSL unbeatens Sunday morning at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School complex. FIMA is based in Braintree.

Forward Rudy Fernandez scored VFC’s first goal and set up its final goal midway through the second half, threading a pass through a mass of defenders to coach and winger “Nacho” Vignolo. Mr. Vignolo finished the play, drawing the FIMA goalkeeper left, then rolling the game-winner past him to the right.

Vineyard FC took a 1-0 halftime lead. The advantage was gone less than a minute into the second half on a succesful penalty kick by FIMA player coach Steve Hallenback’s past acrobatic Vineyard keeper Lee Carlos. FIMA came up empty on other excellent second-half chances, hitting the VFC goalpost three times in the waning moments of intense play.

The match pitted two aggressive teams of mostly very fit, skilled, and experienced players who put on a clinic of ball handling, accurate and crisp passing, and solid positional play over the regulation 90 minutes.

Before the match, referee Brad MacDonald, a part-time Island resident, lauded the organization of the Over The Hill league. “It is New England’s largest league, and very well-organized in its approach,” he said. “Good soccer.” A look at the NEOTHSL’s website reinforced Mr. MacDonald’s opinion.

The New England Over-The-Hill Soccer League (NEOTHSL) has 194 teams in four age brackets with up to 7 divisions in each bracket. The league plays two full seasons a year (spring and fall) of ten regular season games followed by two playoff games to determine the division champion. The winners in each division are promoted to the next highest division and the lowest teams ‘relegated’ to a lower division.

For the four-year-old Vineyard entry, the road has been long and somewhat rocky, according to Neal Sullivan, player/manager who moonlights as caretaker for Hidden Star Hill, owned by Carly Simon. “When we began, the league required us to have a home field on the Cape so we used the vocational school field in Bourne which meant we traveled to our home games,” he said with a grin.

“It was difficult, with the travel expense and travel time involved, to get guys to commit to (a 20-game travel schedule) every Sunday and we were often thin on players. After a couple of seasons, the league relented and allowed us to play home games on the Vineyard,” he said.

For Rachel Hallenback, the lone FIMA fan in attendance, Island travel has its benefits. While noting that only 15 of the 21-player roster were able to make the trip, “Steve and I came over yesterday,” the first-time Island visitor said. “We had a wonderful dinner at The Blue Canoe in Vineyard Haven. I had halibut stuffed with lobster. Steve got a steak, so we had surf and turf. Fabulous.”

While the game is played very seriously (Mr. MacDonald handed out two yellow cards for bad behavior and whistled numerous well-deserved fouls), there is a grown-up whimsy about the event. We learned for example that FIMA is an acronym which (loosely translated) stands for “Fudge! I Missed Again.” And these cagey veteran players on both sides of the pitch were only too happy to upend an opponent, then give him a hand up.

Certainly no team in the league is more international than the Island entry. “We have players from seven countries, I think, including Ireland, France, Uruguay, Brazil, the U.S. and Iceland,” said Mr. Sullivan.

“And a good honest Welshman,” Andrew Worlock growled good-naturedly, steely eyes and fierce muttonchops providing a look appropriate to his name.

The Vineyard FC roster has another unique element. Two of its players were sporting ponytails on Sunday: Mr. Sullivan and Annie Holmes of Vineyard Haven, the league’s first and only woman competitor and the first woman to score a goal in NEOTHSL history. “Well,” Ms. Holmes observed wryly on her scoring achievement, “it’s kind of like saying ‘you’re my favorite sister’ if she’s your only sister.”

Sunday’s sample showed that Vineyard FC provides high-quality, entertaining soccer played by entertaining, high-quality people.

Next Sunday, VFC travels to meet Milton United in an 9 am match in Milton, a few miles south of Boston.