LAWRENCE/WILMINGTON – It’s never easy to break into varsity starting lineup as a freshman, particularly at a school with as many great athletes as Central Catholic High School. But four years ago, that is exactly what Bobby Bakhtiari was able to do with the Central Boys Soccer team, cracking the Raiders lineup as a center back late in his freshman year, helping lead the Raiders to a berth in the MIAA state tournament.
Bakhtiari had gotten his high school career off to a fast start, and the Wilmington native hasn’t looked back since. Bakhtiari became a permanent fixture in the Raiders starting lineup in his sophomore year, becoming not only one of the best players in the Merrimack Valley Conference, but also a much sought-after Division 1 college prospect.
Bakhtiari recently began his senior season as a captain with the Raiders, but that was not the biggest news for Bakhtiari in recent days, as that came with his commitment to play Division 1 college soccer at Merrimack College beginning in the fall of 2021.
Bakhtiari’s main focus right now remains on leading his Raiders teammates to the best season possible, but he is thrilled to have chosen Merrimack to continue his academic and athletic career.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with both high school and college sports throughout the country, in this case it may have actually helped Bakhtiari make one of the most important decisions of his life, when he settled on Merrimack as his college of choice.
“At the beginning I was looking at many different schools, but I chose Merrimack because they were one of the schools that I was still able to communicate with during quarantine. I didn’t get to know very many schools, but I really liked what I saw at Merrimack,” Bakhtiari said, “I was able to tour the campus and I really liked the coaches and the captains. They had a lot of the majors I was interested in and I really liked their soccer program”
One of the biggest attractions for Bakhtiari, who is hoping to major in sports management and minor in journalism, was the opportunity to play for legendary Merrimack coach Tony Martone, who has over 400 career wins to his credit. The entire program was just what Bakhtiari was looking for, but a coach like Martone put it over the top.
“When I went to their ID Camp, I really liked his style of coaching, and then I went to a couple of games and saw the way they played and I knew they couldn’t play that way without a great coach,” Bakhtiari said.
Bakhtiari will join a Merrimack squad that is in its second season as a Division 1 soccer program, which is a big step up for any player to make from the high school level. But Bakhtiari’s coach at Central Catholic, John Sears, is confident that he can make the leap.
Sears is in just his first season as head coach of the Raiders, but he had been the assistant coach for five years prior to that, so he has seen Bakhtiari grow from a promising freshman to a legit D1 prospect.
“I have had the pleasure to coach Bobby since his freshman year. It is rare to have freshmen make varsity and immediately make an impact,” Sears said. “Bobby came into our program with size, speed and a tremendous skill set. He was willing to play any position and at the end of his freshmen year became a center back for us.
“Bobby is an extremely passionate player which shows on the field. His skill set, physicality and passionate play should translate well to the D1 level.”
But before Bakhtiari can bring those skills to Merrimack, there is still a high school season to be played. And while Bakhtiari loves to play soccer, and especially loves to play with his friends and teammates at Central, he spoke frankly about how difficult this season has been to this point due to the rules changes and restrictions as a result of the pandemic.
“This is probably the most frustrating season I have ever had,” Bakhtiari said. “It’s not just a matter of the rules changes, which change the game so much, but it is that the players lose some motivation because of the new rules. It’s almost like we are just playing kickball. It just won’t be the same as the past few years.”
But despite the challenges in front of him and his teammates, Bakhtiari has not changed his approach to leading his team as a captain, as he is doing his best to make sure his team stays focused and motivated for the season.
“It is really just a matter of making sure the guys stay motivated despite everything that is going on,” Bakhtiari said. “If I see someone struggling, I try to help them through that and keep them motivated and wanting to play.”
Sears has noticed and appreciated Bakhtiari’s efforts as a captain to lead his team through this difficult season.
“As captain, I asked Bobby and the other captain to lead by example as well as take charge of getting the team game ready,” Sears said. “Bobby has brought his knowledge of the game and has instituted pregame drills that are effective in getting players game ready.”
Bakhtiari is well versed in the best way to prepare for almost every aspect of a soccer game, as the game has always been a big part of his and his families lives. His cousin Sean Bakhtiari played Division 1 college soccer at Providence College from 2007-2009, while his sister Daria would be in the midst of her senior year with the Brandeis Women’s Soccer team if not for being canceled due to the pandemic.
“My family has helped me in so many ways. My dad (Babak) has been coaching me since I was six or seven years old and he has played a huge part in making me the player I am today. If he was not coaching me on a team, he would be taking me to a field just to work on my game or just talk to me about the game and ways I could improve,” Bakhtiari said. “My mom (Susan) helped me through the whole college process, with applying nd talking to coaches and everything like that. I could not have done it without her.
“My sister has a lot of experience and she has been helping me a lot, just telling me what the college experience is like and showing me what being a student athlete is like. She has given me a lot of tips on what it takes to be successful.”
Bakhtiari certainly appears to have the skills necessary to make him a success at the college level. He has scored four goals in each of the past two seasons at Central Catholic, all while playing on the defensive end for the Raiders. But he has also shown the ability to play multiple positions and help his team from anywhere on the field.
“Bobby’s speed and aggressiveness made it difficult for opposing strikers to get free when he is on defense. His skills allowed him to move from defense to offense pretty effectively,” Sears said. “Where many defenders at the high school level have average foot skills Bobby skills allowed us to counter quickly. He not only has fantastic foot skills but also a tremendous shot. He is able to put pace and movement on a ball that makes it difficult on any keeper.
“With this in mind I decided to move Bobby to a striker position and then center mid over the past week. Today's (Monday’s) 4-0 win over St. Mary's of Lynn was due much to Bobby distributing the ball amongst his teammates and playing strong defensively in the middle of the field.”
Bakhtiari has certainly left a lasting legacy at Central, and he will be sorely missed when he moves on to Merrimack. But as much as Central will miss him, he will miss the school just as much.
“I am definitely going to miss high school a lot,” Bakhtiari said. “I have made some of my best friends at Central Catholic and a lot of them are my teammates on the soccer team, so I am definitely going to miss that aspect.”
With that said, Bakhtiari is also excited for the next chapter in his life, and is looking forward to seeing how well he can compete at the college level.
“I am definitely ready for a whole new level of intensity of soccer. It will be a whole new level of anything I have done before in either high school or my club team,” Bakhtiari said. “I will be playing with grown men now, and playing with people who are just as dedicated to the sport as I am. I am a very hard worker and it will be great to play with people who are as dedicated to the sport as I am.”