Tigers coast past Otter Valley for finals spot

BRANDON — The Middlebury Union High School football team completed an undefeated regular season and clinched the top seed in Division II on Saturday, when the Tigers defeated host Otter Valley, 41-14.
The 9-0 Tigers, unofficially, will host No. 4 Fair Haven (6-3 overall, 4-3 in D-II) on Friday night at Doc Collins field. The Tigers won at Fair Haven on Sept. 10, 32-13.
The Otters were missing several starters to injury — senior halfback Peter Bautista and senior lineman and captain Alex Smith among them — and one to a disciplinary issue, and their once-promising season ended at 3-6, 1-6 in D-II.
But senior MUHS captain Patrick Fifield said the Tigers didn’t take the Otters lightly — for one thing, OV pushed the Tigers into overtime at MUHS a year ago.
“Of course, with their record … it was deceiving,” Fifield said. “We came here with everything we had.”
But after a penalty halted the Tigers’ first drive, they had little trouble moving the ball, racking up 392 yards on the ground on 48 carries and scoring touchdowns on their next four possessions to take a 27-0 lead.
Meanwhile, the Tiger defense held OV to 55 first-half yards, 227 overall Most of those came on two passes to wideout Jimmy Winslow, one of them tossed for 38 yards by Justin Owen on a halfback option to set up quarterback Zakk Williams’ 19-yard scoring pass to Winslow with eight seconds left in the half to make it 27-7.
Before then, the Tigers scored:
• On an 86-yard end-around by wide receiver Dillon Robinson (6 carries, 133 yards) on their second possession.
• At 5:46 of the first period on a 21-yard pass from QB Brendon Burell to Mitchell Clarke, a play set up by Robinson’s 26-yard punt return. That was the only pass the Tigers completed on the day; they had 413 yards of total offense.
• At 10:44 of the second quarter on a 7-yard Alex Bowdish run after a 77-yard drive that included a 22-yard run by Burell 6 carries, 56 yards) and a 25-yard Bowdish gain. Bowdish added a third straight point-after kick, but missed the next one.
• At 4:07 of the second quarter on an 8-yard Burell run that capped a 71-yard march highlighted by Jordan Connor’s 35-yard run on a counter play.
OV answered after linebacker Carl Gutzman recovered a Tiger fumble at the OV 32 with 1:02 before the half. Owen found Winslow (six catches for 139 yards) down the right sideline for 38 yards, and two Williams scrambles moved the ball to the 19. From there, Williams lofted the ball to the end zone, and Winslow outmuscled a defender for it. Pike Ladago tacked on the point-after.
The Tigers added two more third-quarter scores. Burell finished off a 61-yard drive with a 1-yard sneak, and Seth Hobbs punched in his first varsity touchdown at 1:44 with another 1-yard score. Dylan Lanphear tacked on the points-after.
As the fourth quarter opened, Williams hit Winslow for 46-yards to the Tiger 24. On the next play, receiver Nate Fitzgerald scored on a reverse and the point-after made it 41-14.
Later, a 21-yard Williams-to-Owen hook-up set up a 34-yard Ladago field goal attempt, but it came up short. OV also got the ball back one last time at 0:55, and Williams (13 for 25 for 159 net yards) kept firing, tossing 24- and 22-yard completions to Winslow and Owen, respectively.
OV coach Dennis Perry praised his team’s effort against the Tigers, and he praised the Tigers.
“We asked our kids just to go out and give us their best effort, and I believe they did,” Perry said. “We were down players … but I thought we got a good effort out of our team today.
That’s a good team. Middlebury is arguably the best team in the state, definitely in Division II. I have no complaints about our effort.”
After a fall like this one, which started with a promising win over D-I Spaulding then went off the tracks with close losses and injuries, Perry said he looks at the big picture.
“It looked bright after week one, and these things started to snowball against us and it continued all season long. Hey, that’s all part of the game,” Perry said. “I’ve told every young coach out there, if you hang around long enough, everybody has their turn in the barrel one way or another. You’re going to have your chance to ride high … or you’re going to have to struggle and do the best you can, like we’ve had to.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers are riding high. Fifield said the Tigers are excited to be where they are, and set to prepare for the Slaters.
“It feels absolutely excellent. We’re ready to start the playoffs now,” he said.
Fifield said hard work and chemistry have helped the Tigers succeed.
“(We’ve had) lots of hard practices. As a team, we keep together. We work really well together,” he said.
MUHS coach Dennis Smith credited the Tigers’ effort and the work of his assistants, John Nuceder and Jed Malcolm, with a defense that has held all its opponents to 14 points or fewer.
And he credited the shorthanded Otters for the grit they showed on Saturday.
“We knew it was a tough situation coming down here,” Smith said. “But they came out and played hard. I take my hat off to Otter Valley. They slugged their way with us, and we had to work for it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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