Tiger girls’ lax falls to undefeated Rebels in championship game

CASTLETON — In the end, nobody could stop the South Burlington High School girls’ lacrosse powerhouse this spring.
On Saturday at Castleton State College, the top-seeded Rebels capped off their 16-0 season with a 14-7 victory over No. 2 Middlebury, their third straight title-game victory over the Tigers, all at Spartan Stadium.
The 12-5 Tigers’ hopes of an upset took a hit early, when the Rebels scored four goals in the first 3:03. Junior middie Ashley Norris and sophomore middie Sarah Fisher, who led SBHS with four goals and two assists each, each scored twice in that opening outburst, which forced Tiger coach Kelley Higgins to call for time.
The Tigers had dug out of an early hole in the semifinal win over Mount Anthony earlier in the week, but the Rebels are a tougher foe. The rest of the game was more even — 10-7, Rebels, and 5-4 in the second half — but the damage was done.
“I think the start we got off to sort of shot us in the foot a little bit. Had we started the way we ended that first half, it would have been a much closer game,” Higgins said. “They’re a really strong team, so you can’t give them that many goals.”
 One reason it was difficult for MUHS to rally was that the Rebels pressured them effectively at midfield and made it difficult for them to get good looks at their goalie, Courtney Barrett, who faced just 12 shots and stopped five of them.
But Higgins acknowledged the Rebels did not cause all of the Tiger turnovers.
“We had some unnecessary, even unforced turnovers,” Higgins said. “Had we been more consistent on the offensive end, again, it would have been a closer game.”
But she was pleased with the Tigers’ defensive effort after the slow start, especially considering the pressure. Notably, senior Tiffany Danyow marked Rebel senior Ann-Marie Farmer, who scored eight times in the semifinal round to reach 199 for her career, but did not score on Saturday.
 “Tiff did a great job of taking Farmer out of the game. She was stellar today,” Higgins said, adding, “The adjustments we made defensively started working.”
Tiger sophomore attacker Emily Kiernan made it 4-1, but the Rebels pushed the lead to 8-1 before sophomore middie Sophia Peluso scored two of the three final goals of the half, one at 0:2.1, to make it 9-3 at the break.
Tiger goalie Baily Ryan (11 saves) made two big saves early in the second half, but the Rebels scored twice while only Kiernan found the net, and it was 11-4 with 12:43 to go. But soon afterward the Rebels fouled sophomore middie Julia Rosenberg, who whipped home a free position at 11:23 to make it 11-5.
At 9:30, junior middie Emily Robinson, tossed in another free position to make it 11-6, and the Tigers won the draw — they did so seven of nine times in the second half and had a 12-9 edge overall — and a comeback looked at least possible.
Instead, a good check by the Rebel defense triggered a fast break, and Norris converted a free position at 7:59. A minute later Fisher added another free position goal, and the Rebels were on their way despite a goal at 5:51 by Tiger sophomore middie on a rebound of a Robinson shot.
The Tigers, the most successful girls’ lacrosse program in Vermont history, came up short of their first title since 2008 in what was their fourth straight and seventh state championship appearance in eight years. 
But Higgins said they put forth a good effort.
“I’m proud of them, I really am,” Higgins said. “Our goal was, regardless of a win or loss, that we leave everything out there, and for the most part I can say in almost every category we did.”
In Wednesday’s semifinal, the Tigers defeated visiting No. 3 seed Mount Anthony, 16-8, despite three Patriots goals in the first 4:23. The Tigers responded with an 8-2 run to take charge.
In that surge, Robinson scored three goals, including the 100th of her career, and added an assist, and Emma Best also scored three times. But the Patriots found the net twice in the half’s final minute to pull within a goal, 8-7.
Then the Tigers dominated the second half. Robinson (four goals and four assists) set up Kiera Kirkaldy at 20:26 for a momentum-breaking strike. Ryan (seven saves, five in the second half) then made two key stops before Kiernan (four goals, two assist) cashed in a feed from Danyow in transition at 17:36.
The Tigers pulled away from there, as Best finished with three goals and three assists, and Sophia Peluso added three goals and an assist. Danyow also joined with fellow low defenders Hannah Hobbs and Olivia Carpenter in putting the clamps on the Patriots, while Rosenberg scooped seven ground balls to lead MUHS in that department. Emily Cross led MAU (11-6) with two goals and two assists, and goalie Samantha Mayer made nine saves.
Danyow said the Tigers just took better care of business in their zone defense after the break on Wednesday. 
“Our communication improved tremendously. We started talking, we started sliding,” Danyow said.
And after the semifinal win, Higgins talked about what the young Tigers had accomplished, showing the skill and confidence to defeat every team in D-I except the Rebels despite losing to graduation a talented senior class that included three all-state players who started for college teams this spring.
“We did lose a lot of seniors, but the expectation was that we would get to this point again. There was never a doubt in my mind, and certainly there wasn’t in their minds either, that we were capable of getting to this moment,” Higgins said. “If we didn’t believe that through the whole season, even when we lost some games that we shouldn’t have, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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