MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Union High School football team shrugged off wind, rain, mud and a tough visiting Colchester squad on Friday to claim a pivotal Division I game, 25-8.
The Lakers dropped to 4-3, while the Tigers are 6-1, 5-1 in D-I. A win at Champlain Valley (5-2) on Saturday should clinch the Tigers a top-four playoff berth and a first-round home game. Quality points rankings (QPRs) will then determine seeds.
This coming weekend, Hartford (7-0) will host Rutland (4-3), St. Albans (6-1) hosts winless Burlington, and South Burlington (6-1) entertains Essex (2-5). Then the Vermont Principals Association will award seeds based on QPRs, which weigh teams’ strengths of schedule as well as records
First, the Tigers had to take care of business against a Colchester team also faring well in its first year in D-I.
“We weren’t looking at it as a team we have to beat because they’re up in the standings,” said MUHS coach Dennis Smith. “It was just a matter of if we want to have a home game in the first round of the playoffs, this was a very important game that way. It helps us get in the top four, I think, and hopefully we can have that home game in the first round and go from there.”
The Tigers had to dig themselves out of an 8-0 hole. They scored a second-quarter touchdown on a 23-yard run by Marshall Hastings (102 yards, 12 carries), and then went ahead in the third quarter by scoring on a 30-yard Hastings run and 36- and 1-yard runs by quarterback Dillon Robinson (103 yards, 14 carries). They outgained the Lakers, 284-228 yards.
In that third quarter, the Tiger defense held the Lakers to 10 yards. Derek Bagley recovered a fumble, and Danny Scholten and Austin Quesnel teamed up to tackle Laker QB Taylor St. Germain for a four-yard loss on fourth down at the Laker 49, one play after a strong pass rush by Dylan Lanpher forced an incomplete pass.
Robinson said the Tigers didn’t do anything different, but just played better after listening to Smith’s halftime speech.
“Coach Smith really motivated us, got the boys ready to go, and we just played football like we know how to,” Robinson said. “We just had to do what we practiced and practiced. We knew what to do. We just had to execute.”
The Tiger defense also came up big in the first quarter after a bad snap on a punt — punts were not a bright spot for the Tigers — gave the Lakers the ball on the Tiger 14. But on fourth-and-two from the 6, Patrick Foley batted away a pass.
The Lakers won the early battle for field possession, thanks in part to a 51-yard run by David Lacroix when the Tigers had them backed up. Early in the second quarter the Tigers again had to punt from deep in their own territory. This time punter Tyler Provencher’s boot hit a blocker and rolled out of the end zone for a safety that made it 2-0 at 8:25.
After the kick, the Lakers moved 49 yards to make it 8-0. Runs of 19 and 20 yards by Bobby Brigante sparked the march, and Brigante (who shared time at QB with St. Germain) tossed a 5-yard TD pass to St. Germain at 6:36. (That would be the only pass either team completed.) Joey Zeno blocked the kick.
Then the Tigers marched 75 yards in 11 plays to make it 8-6 at the half. Runs by Robinson, Mitchell Clarke, Jordan Connor helped move the ball to the 23. From there, Hastings went wide right, burst between two defenders 10 yards downfield and went into the end zone. The two-point try failed.
The Tigers did not move in their opening possession of the second half, but then held the Lakers to two yards in three carries. Robinson returned a punt 23 yards to the Laker 35. Two Hastings counter plays later, it was 12-8 at 7:06. The first went for five yards. On the second, Hastings broke a tackle on the line of scrimmage and then absorbed a hit 10 yards downfield, but somehow kept his balance on the way to the left corner of the end zone.
After the Lakers turned the ball over on downs at their 45, Robinson bolted nine yards on the first play, and then 36 yards on the second right up the middle, dodging two early tackles before winning a footrace. Another failed two-point attempt left it at 18-8.
Smith said the Lakers switched back and forth between four-and five-man fronts, and the Tigers took advantage by attacking the middle of the five-man fronts and the edges of the four-man fronts.
“They were kind of trying to confuse us, but it actually worked to our advantage because we can block both,” he said.
A long St. Germain kickoff return put the Lakers on their 47, but a play later Bagley pounced on a Laker fumble at the 49.
The Tigers soon scored their fourth TD in five possessions. Runs by Robinson, Foley and Clark and a penalty helped move the ball to the 1, and Robinson plunged in from there with three seconds left in the third.
Colchester twice earned first-and-goal in the fourth. But Gabe Laberge recovered a fumble to end one threat, and Sam Smith picked off a pass in the final minute to kill the other.
Afterward, the Tigers ran to the sidelines and surrounded and posed for pictures with wheelchair-bound senior lineman Ramsey Bronson, who was seriously injured in a car accident and cannot play again this season.
But most of the rest of the team is finally intact, and Smith is happy with their play.
“We’re finally at the point where everybody who is healthy is here for the rest of the year,” he said. “We’ve got the people where they need to be. Now it’s a matter of working the little things and fine-tuning so we’re ready for the stretch run.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.