MIDDLEBURY — The top-seeded Middlebury Union High School football team on Friday earned a berth in this coming Saturday’s Division II final at Castleton State College, but the win wasn’t easy or pretty, and it might prove to be costly.
The 10-0 Tigers outlasted No. 4 Fair Haven, 9-6, on the quagmire that was Doc Collins Field.
Both the stingy Tiger defense and the deep mud slowed Fair Haven’s potent spread offense — the 6-4 Slaters’ managed 170 yards of offense, 138 in the second half as they tried to rally from a 9-0 halftime deficit.
Meanwhile, three factors slowed the Tigers; the mud, an aggressive Slater defense that crowded the line of scrimmage and often blitzed, and an injury to MUHS quarterback Brendon Burell just before halftime.
Burell picked up a fumbled snap on third-and-goal late in the second quarter and tried to dive forward, and apparently received a blow to the head on the play. He did not return in the second half, when the Tigers managed one first down and 29 of their 169 yards of offense.
Coach Dennis Smith said on Sunday that Burell’s is day-to-day with Saturday’s game vs. No. 3 Rice (9-1) looming; game time will be announced early this week. Burell also starts at safety, and fellow safety Jerry Hoffman is also off the team for undisclosed reasons. Rice QB Christian McCormick is among the best in Vermont.
But the Tigers shut down a high-powered offense this past Friday, and no team has scored more than 14 points vs. them all season. Junior halfback/cornerback Marshall Hastings, who picked up that key second-half first down and ended the last Slater hope with an interception, said the first priority on Friday was stopping Fair Haven’s passing attack and quarterback Nick Bruno (10-for-19 for 69 net yards).
“They’ve been throwing the ball really well. It did help that we had the mud. That was a plus. But we just had to stop the passing game, and we were able to execute,” Hastings said. “We got a lot of good pressure on him ... and didn’t let anybody get wide open, and we didn’t allow the big play.”
The Tigers took a quick 6-0 lead. They punted after receiving the opening kickoff; the Slater returner fumbled and Jordan Connor recovered on the Slater 22. On third down, Burell hit halfback Bryan Ashley-Selleck for 12 yards to the FHU six. On third down from the 8, the Tigers went to a counter play, and Ashley Selleck bolted over the left side to make it 6-0 at 5:39.
The Tigers went up, 9-0, on an 88-yard drive that ended with Alex Bowdish’s first field goal of the year, a 20-yarder at 4:19.
Big plays on the march included an 11-yard Burell run on third-and-six from the Tiger 15, a 27-yard toss from Burell to Ashley-Selleck, an 11-yard sweep by Hastings, and a 31-yard romp by Ashley-Selleck on another counter play to put the ball on the Slater 5. But the Tigers couldn’t punch the ball in, and three plays later Burell was hurt.
Fair Haven experimented on offense in the second half. First, Coach Ryan Audet put Robert Coloutti in at QB. Coloutti, the original starter, lost his job when hurt, and then Bruno sparked the Slaters’ late-season surge. Coloutti ran for a first down, but went 0-for-2 passing and was sacked by Bowdish before Audet put Bruno back in.
Bruno completed a couple passes and ran for a first down, and then drew an interference call on the Tigers as the quarter drew to a close. As the fourth opened, Bruno kept the drive alive with a completion to Levi Ellis and a 5-yard run to the Tiger 27 on third and 5.
Then Audet alternated Bruno with Dakota Euber at QB. Euber bolted for 10 yards, and soon Bruno hit Ellis for 14 to the Tiger 5-yard-line. From there Euber bolted in for the TD. Steel White and Kalob Gagnon blocked the kick, and it was 9-6 at 8:21.
A short Tiger punt put the Slaters on the MUHS 35. But MUHS pressured Bruno on fourth-and-5 from the 19, and the Tigers took over there with 3:23 to go.
At 2:29, they faced third-and-7 from the 22. If the Tigers could not convert, Fair Haven would have plenty of time and the ball near midfield. But Hastings ran behind the right side of the line for eight yards and the only Tiger first down of the half.
“As I was getting there, I saw the yard marker and I knew on third we needed to make it,” Hastings said. “It was all the blockers. They made the hole just big enough.”
That first down forced Fair Haven to burn its timeouts, and by the time Ashley-Selleck punted for the final time, the Slaters started on their 35 with 40 seconds left. Four plays later, Hastings picked Bruno off at midfield, and the Tigers soon celebrated.
“It’s amazing,” Hastings said. “I thought we had potential, but I never saw this coming. We’ve come together as a team, and we’ve executed at the big times. It’s awesome. I can’t even believe it. I don’t know if I’m sleeping tonight.”
Hastings finished with 10 carries for 34 yards; White, 11 for 41; and Ashley-Selleck, 7 for 45 plus two catches for 39 yards. Burell completed two of three attempts for 39 yards. For the Slaters, Bruno ran 10 times for 34 yards; Euber, 10 times for 39 yards; and Austin Amery, 5 times for 20 yards.
Coach Smith praised both teams’ defenses and effort.
“(Our goals were) don’t let them get the big one, don’t let them get the big play over the top, and make them drive the ball. Which they did that (second-half) series. We’re just thankful they didn’t get that second one,” Smith said. “It was a hard-fought game all-around.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.