MUHS hockey outlasts Eagles

MIDDLEBURY — Before the Middlebury Union High School field hockey team finally defeated South Burlington last week after a multi-year losing streak, Coach Kelley Higgins told the Tigers they were the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, who had just knocked off the New England Patriots under similar circumstances.
But before the 5-1-1 Tigers hosted rival Mount Abraham, who came into Monday’s game at Middlebury College with a 1-4-3 record, the Bills had been upset by Cincinnati on Sunday.
Senior midfielder Brandi Whittemore, whose two late goals helped the Tigers win, 3-1, said Higgins had a different message for her team on Monday.
“Coach said we were not the Bills today, because they were so overwhelmed with their win that they forgot they had to keep continuing strong. So today we just came out hard,” Whittemore said.
Still, despite controlling the ball for most of the game and allowing just two shots on goal, the Tigers found themselves tied, 1-1, with 19:20 to go. That’s when the Eagles converted one of their two penalty corners: Eagle sophomore Hailey Sayles tipped classmate Sam Reiss’s drive from the top of the circle, and the ball spun past Tiger goalie Heather Ploof.
Then the Tigers redoubled their efforts. Eagle senior defender Morgan Cote broke up one of the Tigers’ 10 corners, Eagle sophomore goalie Lizzie Huizenga (13 saves) made a pad save on a breakaway by Tiger senior Chrissy Ritter, and senior Hannah Quinn deflected a Ritter pass off the left post.
Soon afterward the Tigers earned another corner, and that one paid off. The ball came in from the left to senior middie Maria Ploof, and she found Whittemore cutting toward the right post. Whittemore controlled, took two steps, and cracked a shot just inside the left post at 8:59.
The two senior middies struck again 1:39 later. Ploof, whose stickhandling put pressure on the Eagle backs all day, carried into of the circle and slid a pass left to Whittemore steaming down the middle. Whittemore chipped a shot inside the left post, and it was 3-1.
Whittemore said the Tigers — who needed to win to stay on top of the Division I standings — were determined to pull the game out.
“With that tie goal, we knew it was the beginning of the game and we had to fight to the end,” she said.
Eagle coach Mary Stetson said her defense — Lydia Stearns, Lane Russell and Hillary Ryan as well as Cote and Huizenga — held up well given the Tigers’ edge in territory.
“Lizzie and Morgan had great games back there. You can only hang on for so long,” Stetson said.
The Eagles countered and quickly earned a corner, and Eagle senior forward Sara Sayles got a solid shot off. But Tiger goalie Heather Ploof made the pad save, and the Tigers cleared the rebound. MUHS then played offense the rest of the game.
The Tigers got their first goal at 26:36 of the first half on their first penalty corner. The ball went from the top of the circle to senior left wing Kayla Weiss, who sent a pass across the goal to Quinn for a tap-in at the right post.
Overall, Eagle forward Sarah Heffernan looked dangerous, and senior midfielder Nicky Shandrow and sophomore middie Madi Wood showed well. It hurt the Eagles that Shandrow had to leave the game with an injury late in the first half.
But the Tiger midfielders, with help from the speedy Ritter coming back for the ball, had already established an edge in play.
“Their midfield played better than ours, and not just their midfield,” Stetson said. “They did a very nice job controlling the play. We reacted and they played.”
Higgins also credited her midfielders — freshman Sophia Peluso as well as Whittemore and Ploof.
“They hustled on both ends of the field, and it makes everybody’s jobs easier because of that, for sure,” she said.
Junior sweeper Tiffany Danyow again fared well, along with senior Eva Pratt and junior Grace Boucher on the flanks. Higgins moved Danyow to defense just this season, and the decision has paid off.
“That’s definitely a new position for her that she’s filled really strongly,” Higgins said.
Higgins acknowledged she wasn’t sure what to expect after graduating key members of last year’s team. She believes the Tigers’ chemistry, developed in part while they scrambled to find practice time with a flooded field, has played a role in this season’s success, as has their depth.
“I think maybe it’s because of the adversity with the field. Maybe we’ve learned to work together because of that. Off the field is always as important as on the field,” Higgins said. “And everyone contributes so much in practice. Because we have the numbers we can practice hard and be competitive.”
Meanwhile, Stetson said the D-II Eagles have remained competitive facing their D-I schedule, and are improving their transition into offense and their game sense.
“We’re improving by leaps and bounds. Our attitudes are good. We hold our head high. I don’t think we’re an easy win for anybody,” Stetson said. “Like I said at the beginning of the year, if you can make it through this league, it’s what you learn from the season. I think we’re learning.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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