Fall brought success in many ways

When the echo of the final whistle faded this past fall, only one local high school team won its last game or race — the Middlebury Union field hockey squad that derailed the South Burlington express in the Division I final.
Of course, winning a championship by definition equals success. The victors jump for joy and hug and smile and talk about chemistry and game-winning goals and hard work paying off.
But sports aren’t really zero-sum, where only one team wins and every other group comes up short. Not all teams are destined to win, or even contend for titles. The journey itself has its rewards.
Take the Middlebury girls’ soccer team, for example. The Tigers’ chances of winning a title after being bumped up to D-I — in my opinion incredibly unfairly — to compete with soccer factories like Champlain Valley and South Burlington were about the same as Herman Cain now has of being elected president.
But what the young Tigers did — win four D-II games, tie an excellent Mount Abraham team, defeat Vergennes, post six shutouts and, most importantly, improve the quality of their play — made their season a success.
And speaking of the VUHS girls, what will they remember from their season? The Commodores suffered an almost biblical plague of injuries and won just three regular season games. Finally almost fully healthy, they lost two one-goal games to top teams as the season closed and then won a playoff game on the road.
Meanwhile, a despicable act of vandalism tore up their home field. School officials scrambled to staple new sod in place where needed in time for the Commodores to host a second-round game. Then the athletes’ friends on the boys’ soccer team camped out next to the field in freezing temperatures the night before the quarterfinal to protect the girls’ repaired turf.
The next day on that turf, the girls won a dramatic penalty-kick shootout in front of a couple hundred positive, supportive fans, as joyous a moment as I saw this fall.
A successful season? I’m guessing that’s the way those athletes ultimately will see it.
Oh, and those Commodore boys? Their win total grew from just three to four from a year ago. But they were outscored by 35 goals in 2010, and only by six in 2011. Sounds like the right direction to me.
For other teams, regular season success ended in postseason heartbreak. The Mount Abe boys’ soccer team probably performed the best of any team in the D-II tournament. After the Eagles took a long bus ride, a few of their shots hit goalposts, and they played a man down in overtime and lost a semifinal to the eventual champion.
Coach Mike Corey sent me a photo of the Eagles taken after that game, standing in a circle with the players’ arms around each others’ shoulders. It struck me as a picture of a team of winners. I hope and suspect they feel that way, too.
The MUHS cross-country teams completed a remarkable two-season run as the girls took second for the second straight year at the D-II championships in Thetford and the boys came in third.
Of course, the boys not finishing first stunned most observers. The Tigers — with five of their top six runners from Cornwall — were the defending champs and had steamrolled their D-II opposition all fall.
They didn’t perform badly in that final race, though. Harwood and Woodstock simply ran a tiny bit better over the challenging Thetford course.
And those five runners from Cornwall leave behind a legacy of the finest two seasons in Tiger cross-country history, including Stuart Guertin’s 2010 individual D-II title. I’m guessing the Tigers are holding their heads high even without back-to-back crowns.
While that group of Tiger boys entered the fall with high expectations, another group of MUHS boys had less certain prospects. After two competitive years in D-II, Tiger football returned to D-I this season, and nobody was sure how the program would fare. Preseason polls had them making the eight-team playoffs, but not earning a home game. And the team started the season shorthanded due to injuries and discipline and academic issues.
Then the team kept finding ways to win, despite more injuries along the way. The Tigers earned the No. 3 seed, hosted and won a quarterfinal, and knocked off No. 2 BFA-St. Albans in a road semifinal.
After that game, the St. Albans Messenger reporter who covered the game emailed me that he thought the Tigers had a real chance vs. Hartford in the final. But he didn’t know two starters who left the semifinal with injuries could not play the next week, and that several more players would go down in the title game.
One way to describe the Tiger team comes from a chat I had earlier this week when I was at Mount Abe talking with coaches for our upcoming Winter Sports Report. One of my former teammates is Eagle boys’ basketball coach Bill Leggett, and we took a few minutes to catch up.
One thing we agreed on is that a successful team is not just one that wins its last game, but one that plays to its potential, gets the most out of its ability.
The MUHS football squad met that standard.
Something else that can be shared with athletes on teams this fall comes from that conversation and from the MUHS field hockey banquet. There, tri-captain Brandi Whittemore gave an emotional speech and said something that has stuck with me: “I wish you could be my teammates forever.”
Thinking back to sitting down with Leggs and other of my longtime teammates in the area, I realized there is good news for Brandi and many others.
Many will be teammates forever.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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