MIDDLEBURY — The No. 1 Middlebury Union High School football team will play No. 2 South Burlington on Saturday for the Division I title, and a win for the Tigers would give them their first title since they upset Hartford, 3-0, in 2002.
Game time for Saturday’s final between the 10-0 Tigers and 9-1 Rebels at Rutland High School is 5 p.m.
To reach that game, the Tigers on this past Friday had to defeat visiting Hartford, the three-time defending champion and winner of five of the past six D-I crowns. But this time the Hurricanes were the No. 4 seed, entered the semifinal with a 6-2 record, and had already lost to the Tigers this fall, 23-0.
The Tigers were prepared, shutting down Hartford’s power running game and moving the ball consistently in a 28-6 victory. Hartford’s only score and 75 of its 237 yards of offense came after MUHS had taken a 28-0 lead and Coach Dennis Smith had pulled his first-string defense.
Tiger senior linebacker Josh Stearns, who made two tackles to end a Hartford scoring threat with the score 21-0 late in the third, said the Tiger coaches had spent hours in the video room to prepare their team to face the Hurricanes.
And the Tigers were fired up to do the rest, Stearns said, including stopping Hartford on fourth-and-three from the Tiger 8 in the second quarter, when Sam Smith dragged down Dylan Rice a yard short to protect a 7-0 lead.
“The key was just getting our reads and finding the ball, just swarming that ballcarrier,” Stearns said. “We just took it to them every play.”
Stearns added the Tigers had plenty of motivation: Many of them were on the field for one-sided playoff losses to Hartford in 2011 and 2012.
“This means a whole lot to us. They knocked us out the last two years, and we just came out ready to play,” Stearns said. “We did what we needed to do.”
The Tigers took the lead on their second possession, after a short punt set them up on the Hurricane 41. After quarterback Austin Robinson hit Connor Quinn for 12 yards on third down to keep the drive alive and ran for another first down, he found Cullen Hathaway in the left flat and Hathaway raced untouched for the score. The first of four Stearns extra points made it 7-0 at 4:28 of the first.
After the Tigers and Smith stopped Hartford on the MUHS 6, they moved to the 47 and punted. Hartford fumbled the punt, and Bobby Ritter recovered at the Hartford 15. Smith then fumbled at the Hurricane 6 on the next play and Hartford recovered, but could not move the ball.
The field position paid off when the Tigers took over on the Hartford 34 and scored in two plays, a 19-yard Robinson run and an 11-yard Hathaway scamper to the right side at 2:55. That 14-0 score held at the half.
Hartford went nowhere to open the second half, and the Tigers moved 44 yards to make it 21-0. After a Robinson run and a facemask penalty, two bursts by fullback Jake Trautwein pushed the ball to the 20, and from there Hathaway scored again, running wide right and cutting back across the middle.
Hartford then drove to the Tiger 16, but a bad snap and two tackles for losses, one by Stearns, moved the ball back 22 yards. Hartford tried a screen pass to John Bielecki; it gained 10 yards, but Stearns blew it up there by bowling over two blockers and Bielecki with one move.
Two possessions later, Quinn picked off a pass thrown by Hartford QB Greg Shinn as Trautwein was leveling him. Quinn returned it 23 yards to the Hartford 27, and a play later Smith bolted 25 yards to make it 28-0 at 7:21 of the fourth.
Hartford then capped a 75-yard drive with a five-yard pass from Shinn to Rice.
The Tigers gained 295 yards. Trautwein (nine rushes, 92 yards) and Robinson (10 for 76) led the way as MUHS rushed 39 times for 263 yards. Robinson finished two for four for 32 yards.
Coach Smith said the Tigers mix in enough passing with inside and outside running to keep other teams off balance, and that they have worked hard to execute well.
“It’s just a group of kids that … believe in what we’re doing. And I think we’ve just gotten better and better as they year has gone on,” Smith said. “Plus we’ve added things to what we’ve been doing just to spread the field out more. Teams have to defend us all over the place.”
Defensively on Friday, Smith said the Tigers played hard and followed the game plan.
“Our kids just played fundamental,” Smith said. “The kids are just believing in the defense and their reads.”
Next up are the Rebels, who the Tigers topped on Oct. 11, 42-20, despite 256 rushing yards from tailback Tanner Contois.
That game featured 912 yards of offense between the two team, slightly more from the Tigers, who were sparked by Trautwein’s 223 yards. They also intercepted three passes and forced a Contois goal-line fumble.
Stearns and Smith acknowledged handling Contois would be critical.
“It’s make plays, don’t make mistakes, and contain Contois for as much as you can,” Smith said.
Stearns said the Tigers were excited to defeat Hartford, but they have not forgotten their week-to-week mantra.
“It’s the best feeling right now,” he said. “But we’ve got another week, another job to take care of.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.