DRACUT – James Meli and Brendan Davis provide the Dracut High boys’ soccer team with a pair of players beyond compare.
These multi-talented senior co-captains can each control a game in their own unique way. Yet, despite being cast in vastly different roles, they are fast friends who share a strong desire to win and possess a creative license that often gives the Middies a competitive edge.
Meli’s sleek mobility, endurance and grit have helped him emerge as one the Merrimack Valley Conference’s premier shutdown defenders. Davis has relied on his great skills and tireless energy while blossoming into one of the league’s most feared strikers.
They feed off each other on game days, and the intensity this dynamic duo produces puts a charge into their teammates.
With Meli and Davis leading the way, Dracut (9-5 overall) is in first place in MVC Division 2 with a 9-4 record. The Middies need two points in their final two league games to secure their second straight MVC Division 2 title. Dracut is scheduled to host Tewksbury in its Senior Night game Tuesday at 7 p.m.
“It’s awesome having them at each end of the field,” said Dracut head coach Ryan Keefe, who has been in charge of the Middies program for 10 seasons. “They’re so consistent. I know we can always count on them to make plays. If we start slow, we know Brendan can get us a goal. If we need to step up on defense, James is there. The example they’ve set over the past four years has caused everybody else to raise their level of play.”
Meli was the MVC Division 2 Player of the Year in 2018, and Davis was an all-conference selection. They were both named to the Eastern Massachusetts all-star team as juniors. In the offseason, Davis and Meli worked hard at taking their game to the next level, and it shows in their performance on the pitch.
Davis is the leading scorer in MVC Division 2 this season with 15 goals and six assists. Meli is a fixture on a defensive unit, which includes the stellar play of keeper Tyler Flick, which has enabled the Middies to record five shutouts while posting a 0.9 goals-against-average.
“It helps to have one of us in the front and one of us in the back,” said Davis. “We’ve been playing together since we were in the third grade, so we’ve been teammates forever. We know each other very well. If I’m having trouble with something, he talks to me. With him, I know everything about his game. It really helps to have each other to talk to. We motivate each other.”
You won’t find Meli’s name listed on the score sheet very often. And that’s the way he likes. He gets a great deal of satisfaction out of making life miserable for opposing forwards.
“Someone has to play defense,” said Meli. “I like being that guy to disrupt an offense. My goal is to keep them from scoring goals. I like to shut a team down.
“I enjoy being the guy who, when people have the ball, they give you that look of like there he is again, ready to kill a play (from developing).”
Meli stands 5-foot-8, weighs 160 pounds and is the heart-and-soul of Dracut’s swarm-to-the-ball defense.
“He brings it every day,” said Keefe. “He’s an animal. There’s really no other way to describe him. He’s all over the place. He covers so much ground. He’s the guy who, I think, if you asked other people around the league who you’d want on your team, a lot of them would choose him.
“He’s not afraid. He doesn’t back down. He brings an intensity that’s hard to match. He gives everybody a boost. You feel good with him back there. You know he has your back.”
There can be chaos all around him, and Meli will hold his ground, calm as a lagoon, determined to turn back every scoring threat that comes his way.
“He has good speed, so he can keep up with the fastest players in the league,” said Keefe. “He’s a really a good one-on-one defender. He’s willing to put his body on the line, that’s a big part of being a good defender. He blocks shots. He (slide) tackles and reads the game well. He’s always there to cover for somebody else when they get beat. He does it all.”
Meli also excels in the classroom, where he is a National Honor Society student with a 3.9 grade-point average.
In the stat-driven world of high school sports, Meli took a great deal of pride in being named the MVC Division 2 Player of the Year last fall, despite scoring only one goal all season. His tireless work on defense helped the Middies advance to the semifinals of the MIAA Division 3 North sectional.
“I’m not the biggest guy,” said Meli. “I’m not the strongest guy. I may not even be a real fast guy. But I play with heart. I just make sure I’m ready to play no matter what. I’m always ready to go.
“In high school, they don’t keep stats like aerial battles won, challenges (for the ball) won, so it was a great feeling that other players and coaches noticed me as an athlete. The stats don’t really matter if you can catch other people’s eye with your ability.”
It’s easy for Davis to catch everyone’s eye with his dazzling array of breathtaking moves. He is an intuitive goal scorer, who exploits weaknesses in the defense.
“There’s nobody who works harder than him,” said Keefe. “He’s another guy I don’t have to take off the field. He occupies the whole back four (on defense) because he’s constantly moving, constantly looking for the ball, constantly taking guys on. He’s a pure striker. That’s where he’s played for us all four years.”
Davis finished his junior season with 16 goals and five assists. He has netted 49 goals during his varsity career.
“When practice is over he’ll go to his car, grab his own bag of balls and go back out and work on his own,” said Keefe. “That’s why he’s such a good goal-scorer. His ability to finish is better. His first touch is better. Over the course of four years, I don’t know if I’ve had a player who has improved so much. He’s worked hard at making himself a complete player.”
Davis, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 160 pounds, is very much a marked man. But he is strong enough to battle through double-teams and put the ball in the net.
“It can be frustrating at times (being marked),” said Davis. “But that’s what defenders kind of have to do. But I have ways of working around the defense. I just play through it. I don’t complain much to the refs. I fight through it and try to score.”
Not only is Davis fast and strong, he is extremely poised in the box, waiting for the right moment to strike.
“I’ve always had a lot of speed, that’s obviously the main thing,” said Davis. “But over the years I’ve gained a lot more awareness in terms of how to get open. My skill level with the ball has gone up a lot. So that helps.”
Davis is a National Honor Society student with a 3.8 grade-point average. He is quick to credit his teammates for the role they have played in his success.
“Positioning is so important,” said Davis. “I have a lot of teammates who do a great job setting me up. They know me and they know where I like the ball.”
Meli and Davis both plan on playing soccer at the collegiate level. But at the moment, they are focused on securing the MVC Division 2 crown and preparing for the upcoming state tournament.
“I knew their freshman year they were two guys we could build around,” said Keefe. “They are among the best I’ve coached here. They are right up there in the top five, easy.”
Follow Carmine Frongillo on Twitter @cwfrongi.