COLCHESTER — The top-seeded, undefeated Colchester High School football team scored on two of its first three possessions Friday and held on for a 12-7 victory over visiting No. 4 Middlebury in a Division II semifinal marked by tough defense.
The 10-0 Lakers moved on to this weekend’s D-II final vs. No. 3 Champlain Valley, which defeated No. 2 Mount Mansfield, 21-14, also on Friday.
The Tigers, a team with just nine seniors and featuring many sophomores in key roles, finished the season at 7-3. They lost twice to the Lakers, and once to CVU.
MUHS coach Dennis Smith said the game played out much like he expected.
“It was just as I felt it probably would be, a defensive battle. We felt good. We came to play. My team, I can’t say enough about them. We were down 12-0, but we didn’t give up. And if we had a little more time, who knows?” Smith said.
The Lakers outgained the Tigers, 254 yards to 185, including rushing for 232 yards in 52 carries. MUHS contained all-star halfback Devon Grammo, holding him to 89 yards on 24 carries. But 230-pound fullback Jared Fetters pounded for 62 yards on 11 carries, mostly up the middle, and Alex Kozlowski slashed for 74 yards on 12 carries, mostly on off-tackle and counter plays.
“They have a lot of weapons. You can’t just take one away and expect to stop them,” Smith said. “You’ve got to stop three different areas. You’ve got to stop inside, outside and then the pass once in a while. So they’ve got a great team there, and they’re clicking right now.”
That occasional pass proved critical on the Lakers’ second drive. They took over on the Tiger 47 and moved to the Tiger 21. After Kozlowski ripped off six yards on first down, big defensive plays by Middlebury’s Steel White and Marshall Hastings forced a fourth-and-five from the 16.
But Laker quarterback Taylor St. Germain, who shared time there with Jack LeClerc, threw a bullet to tight end Tyler Combs in the back of the end zone, and it was 6-0 at 6:22 after the extra point missed.
A Tiger fumble quickly set up the Lakers on the Tiger 24. Runs by Grammo and Fetters and a roughing penalty put the Lakers on the four.
On fourth down from the one, Grammo ran wide left to make it 12-0 on the third play of the second quarter. Hastings broke up the pass on the two-point conversion attempt.
Then the Tigers came to life. Jerry Hoffman returned the kickoff 30 yards to midfield. On third and 10, Tiger QB Brendan Burrell hit fullback Kaden Odell in the right flat, and he rambled 40 yards for a first-and-goal on the 10. But the Lakers blew up a counter play for a seven-yard loss, and on second down Kozlowski picked off a pass.
Hoffman tipped away a St. Germain pass on third down, and MUHS got the ball back deep in its own territory. A roughing-the-punter penalty and two long runs by Ryan Foley put the Tigers into Laker territory, but Shawn Place picked off a deflected Burrell pass at 1:15.
The Tigers got the ball back at the Laker 43 at 0:29 when Austin Quesnel recovered a fumble. A penalty and a 12-yard Burrell-to-Foley connection set up a 32-yard Tyler Malloy field goal attempt, but it fell short as time expired.
MUHS received the second half kickoff. On third and nine from the Tiger 48, Burrell (six for 20, 125 yards) faked two handoffs, rolled right and found Devin Bradford open 20 yards downfield. Bradford ran the rest of the way, Malloy tacked on the extra point, and it was 12-7 at 10:42 of the third quarter.
But while the Lakers did not score again, they gained seven more first downs in their next five possessions, chewing up the clock and limiting the Tigers chances to score. The Lakers mounted one serious threat, reaching the Tiger 11 late in the third quarter, but Foley picked off a pass in the end zone.
Meanwhile, something went wrong each time the Tigers touched the ball. On their next possession, the pass protection broke down and Burrell was flagged for intentional grounding. On their next drive, the Lakers sniffed out a counter play and dropped Foley for a key loss.
Then came the Tigers’ oh-so-close possession. They took over on their own 37 with 8:18 to play. Bradford got open deep down the right sideline on first down, but Burrell’s pass sailed just off his fingertips. On third-and-nine, another pass just missed connecting with Dillon Robinson 15 yards downfield, and the Tigers punted.
After Kozlowski ran for one first down, the Tigers got the ball back on their 11 with 2:43 left. But after an 18-yard pass to Foley, a holding penalty killed the drive, and Smith elected to punt on fourth-and-21 with 1:46 to go.
The Tigers held, and got the ball back on their 44 at 0:40, but St. Germain picked off one last desperation pass to end the Tigers’ season.
Smith said he felt good about the Tigers’ chances for much of the second half, thanks in part to a defense that once again held an opponent to fewer than 20 points.
“We were pretty fired up,” he said. “We just couldn’t make that one more play to put us over the top.”
Especially given that his young team lost to the Lakers by 28-6 in their season opener and had heavy graduation losses, Smith said he was proud of the Tigers.
“The confidence grew throughout the year, and it shows in this game,” he said. “To play this team right here 12-7, our team has come a long way.”