CASTLETON — In Saturday night’s Division II final at Castleton State College, the top-seeded Middlebury Union High School football ran into what Coach Dennis Smith afterward called a buzzsaw.
With senior quarterback Christian McCormick (303 yards and four touchdowns passing) leading the way, the No. 3 Knights (10-1) scored 22 straight second-half points to break open a 16-14 game and win, 38-20.
The result meant for the third time this decade a Tiger team entered the playoffs as an undefeated No. 1 seed, but could not claim the program’s first title since 2002’s 3-0 D-I win over Hartford.
Smith tipped his hat to Rice, which protected McCormick, rushed well (100 yards on 20 carries) and piled up yards after catching the ball (Austin Robinson caught seven passes for 108 yards, Casey Tipson five for 56).
“They had a great game plan and their athletes were just a little bit quicker than ours tonight,” Smith said. “They made the plays and we didn’t.”
The conditions, calm air and fast artificial turf, also favored the Green Knights. Smith said preparing for Rice posed a unique challenge.
“I take nothing away from my kids, but we couldn’t duplicate in practice what they were doing out here on the field,” he said. “We needed to go over and play against Middlebury College and (record-setting quarterback Donald) McKillop last week.”
The Tigers were also hampered by a key injury. Late in the first half, junior fullback and middle linebacker Steel White — called by one opposing coach in the press box possibly the team’s most valuable player — went down with an ankle injury.
With many players already going both ways, White proved difficult to replace in the fast-paced second half.
“That (loss) just snowballed into something else,” Smith said. “You patch a hole in one spot, and it just leaks somewhere else.”
Rice took the opening kickoff and moved 58 yards in eight plays to take the lead. Tipson ran the final 14 yards on a draw play. The first of four, two-point conversions — a pass to Robinson — made it 8-0 at 8:00.
Rice then intercepted MUHS QB Brendon Burell and returned to the 14, but MUHS held, with Jordan Connor and Dillon Robinson breaking up passes.
The Tigers marched 87 yards in 11 plays to make it 8-7 at 1:00 of the first. Burell, Marshall Hastings, White and Bryan Ashley-Selleck all ran well on the drive, and after Hastings scored from the 2 — after White picked up a first down on fourth-and-two — Alex Bowdish made the kick.
Rice made it 16-7 at 4:23 of the second. Tipson capped a 53-yard march by breaking a swing pass for a 15-yard score, and McCormick hit Robinson for the conversion.
The Tigers answered with a 68-yard drive in which Burell (10-for-20, 102 yards) hit Patrick Foley for 29 yards and Hastings hit Robinson for 23 on a halfback option. Robinson also broke tackles on an 11-yard reverse to give MUHS first-and-goal.
On fourth-and-goal from the three with seconds left in the half, Smith opted to try for the TD rather than a field goal, and Hastings made a one-handed, diving grab at the goal line. Bowdish’s point-after made it 16-14 at the half.
In the third quarter, the Tigers failed to gain a first down on their first three possessions, while Rice scored once in three tries — a 20-yard pass to Robinson at 3:46. McCormick ran in the conversion to make it 24-14.
By then, Hastings was on-and-off the field with cramps, White was gone, and Ashley-Selleck also cramped up at one point. Smith said he felt good at halftime, but concerns mounted.
“When you’re playing against them defensively, and trying to go back out on offense, we were just running out of gas,” he said. “As the third and fourth quarter went along we were cramping up and everything. (With) a couple injuries, too, we were depleted.”
The Green Knights scored on two lightning drives in the fourth. They took over at their own 31 with 10:25 to go, and 2:03 later they were in the end zone on a seven-yard toss to Robinson. After a conversion to Nicky Elderton, it was 32-14 with 8:22 to go.
After Tyler Derderian picked off Burell at the Rice 28, and the Green Knights were back in business at 6:56. This time it took them 1:36 to move 72 yards, and McCormick hit Elderton from 29 yards out to make it 38-14.
The Tigers finished their season with a 65-yard drive. Burell completed two passes and Hastings hit Burell on a fake reverse to help move the ball to the 18. Then Burell hit Robinson at the goal line at 1:58 to make it 38-20.
The Tigers rushed 38 times for 158 yards (Hastings, 12 for 45; Burell, eight for 45; Ashley-Selleck, eight for 40; and White, three for 19) and finished with 293 yards of offense.
But they had 133 yards rushing and 188 yards by halftime, and Rice shut down their bread-and-butter counter plays in the second half. The Tigers also hoped to pressure McCormick, and for the most part could not.
“They were picking things up,” Smith said.
Defensively, Robinson (seven tackles), Bowdish (six) and Hastings and Patrick Fifield (four each) led MUHS.
Smith said the loss was tough to take, but that the Tigers’ accomplishments should not be forgotten, nor should the way they handled themselves.
“This group of kids has been wonderful all year. They’ve been a lot of fun,” he said. “And I’d take them all again in a heartbeat.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]