Girls’ lax bests Raiders, reaches final

MIDDLEBURY –– The No. 2 Middlebury Union High School girls’ lacrosse team defeated visiting third-seeded Rutland 13-9 in a Division I semifinal Tuesday.
The Tigers will be making their third straight trip to the D-I final and fifth in six years when they face No. 1 South Burlington at Castleton State College on Friday at 7:30 p.m. That game will be a rematch of the 2011 final, won by the Rebels.
Middlebury scored first. A draw control by Emily Kiernan led to a goal by Brandi Whittemore set up by Chrissy Ritter 30 seconds into the game.
Rutland’s Grace Wright drove to even the score seconds later and set the back-and-forth tone of the first half.
Next, a double team by Tiger defenders Olivia Carpenter and Katie Holmes forced a Raider turnover. Ritter got the ball and ran it straight to goal, drawing a double and dishing to Whittemore for the Tigers’ second goal.
Rutland answered with a 3-0 run, with a goal from Kristie Ryan and two from Kate Kurchena. That spurt made it 4-2, Raiders, at 14:31.
Ritter broke the Raider scoring streak with two quick goals, a free position and then a draw control and fast break, blowing past three defenders to make it 4-4 at 13:54.
Ritter attributed the Tigers’ slow start to nerves.
“We have a young team, we have four freshmen and some sophomores and a lot of them never played on the varsity before and for them to be in a semifinal game was probably pretty nerve-wracking,” she said. “But they settled in fine.”
Middlebury’s team defense was solid throughout, with consistent play from Julia Rosenberg, Hannah Hobbs, Tiffany Danyow, and Carpenter. The Tigers allowed only one more goal in the half on a free position from Kurchena that made it 5-4.
Ritter said pre-game emphasis on defense paid off.
“We were keying in on some key players and we just doubled, doubled, doubled, and our communication was really good today,” she said.
Tiger goalie Maria Ploof then made a crucial save to stop the Raiders from taking a two-goal lead, and Middlebury closed the half on a 3-0 run. Whittemore fired home a free position shot at 3:48 and scored 30 seconds later on a helper from Emily Robinson. Ritter finished the half with a sensational transition goal, dodging five Rutland defenders and nailing a shot inches off the left post.
Tiger Coach Kelley Higgins acknowledged the intensity both teams brought to the game in the first half.
“It was a very physical game,” she said. “Rutland definitely played at a really intense level which was great. We needed that.”
The Tigers rose to the challenge, allowing only four goals in the second half while scoring six.
Ritter assisted Robinson two minutes into the second, extending the lead to 8-5.
Rutland’s Wright closed the gap with a goal 20 seconds later, but the Tiger defense slowed the Raiders and MUHS went back to work.
Whittemore, who led MUHS with five goals, including the 100th of her career, scored on a crease roll. Holmes converted a low-to-high pass from Robinson to make 10-6, and the Tigers led by four for the first time.
Ritter said the Tigers found their rhythm in the second half as nerves lessened. 
“Once we got settled and started doing our thing, some of the underclassmen started stepping up, scoring, making good passes,” she said.
Ploof stuffed a free position by Ryan, starting a transition that led to a Robinson goal on a helper from Holmes to make it 11-6 at 16:36.
Rutland netted the next two goals, as Wright scored off an assist from Kurchena, who followed up with a goal of her own.
But MUHS responded when Hobbs caused a turnover and won the ground ball. She passed upfield to Ritter, who took it coast-to-coast for her fourth goal of the game to make it 12-8 at 10:07.
Then Danyow checked the ball out of a Rutland stick, picked it up and ran to Middlebury’s offensive zone, and the Tigers began stalling.
A turnover led to a Rutland fast break, but Ploof (11 saves) again made a big stop, and the Tigers moved back to the attack and worked more time off the clock. That possession ended with a Kiernan goal from a Ritter assist at 2:16 before the Raiders added a late goal.
Higgins was pleased with her youthful team’s effort.
“I think as young as our team is, they didn’t play young today,” she said.
The Tigers feel good going into the final against the Rebels, their longtime rival. The two teams split two one-goal games this season.
Ritter said that playing teams they have lost to provides extra motivation for MUHS.
“We’re pumped. It’s good that we play the two teams that we lost to back-to-back so that we can get a little vengeance going,” she said. “I think we’re feeling good, obviously we’re a little nervous, but it’s our time.”
Higgins shared Ritter’s excitement going into the championship.
“I loved our bracket when it came out,” she said. “I was glad we were able to face our two opponents that we lost to this year, so one down, one to go.”

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