Eagles tip Tigers in key D-II clash
MIDDLEBURY — On Tuesday, two of the top girls’ soccer teams in both Division II and the Lake Division met for the second time this fall, and for the second time Mount Abraham defeated Middlebury, 1-0, with the Eagles’ strong defense and a goal by senior midfielder Stephanie White making the difference.
With a game to go for each team in the regular season, each also received good news from around the state earlier this week: Losses on Monday and Tuesday by other D-II contenders Woodstock (9-4), Harwood (8-4-1) and Mill River (9-4) apparently clinched top-four playoff seeds for both the 10-3 Eagles and 8-3-2 Tigers.
Of course, the Eagles were happier on Tuesday. As well as nailing down a top seed, the win gave them an 8-1 Lake Division record and moved Mount Abe closer to its first league title since 2005.
“It feels amazing,” said senior central defender and co-captain Reed Martin. “I think the program has just been building, and my class in particular was just ready for it. And now we’re finally here, and I couldn’t be prouder of everyone.”
Because a 6-0 Burke team apparently will not compete in the D-II postseason, the Eagles could even overtake second-place Lake Region (11-1-1) and earn the top D-II seed with a win at Rice on Friday, said Coach Dustin Corrigan.
“The job is certainly not done,” Corrigan said. “We want to win the game on Friday because that will be six away points that could move us to a two seed, if not a one seed.”
On the other hand, the Tigers could still pass the Eagles for the No. 2 seed if they win at Vergennes on Saturday and Mount Abe stumbles against a D-I Rice team that is notoriously tough on its home field.
MUHS Coach Wendy Leeds said the Tigers will have to play with a little more composure to make the kind of playoff run they would like to add to what is already the program’s most successful season in more than 20 years.
“We need to play our game, which is really small ball,” Leeds said. “When we can find each others’ feet and play the small simple passes and move the ball up the field that way, quickly, it works.”
She is also still juggling her lineup as midfielders Katie Holmes and Kess Moulton return from injuries. Holmes played most of the game on Tuesday after limited action the game before, while Moulton is still ramping up her minutes.
“We have a lot to offer. The puzzle for me is always to get the best out of everybody,” Leeds said.
On Tuesday, the Eagles outshot the Tigers, 19-7; claimed most 50-50 balls; and linked up more effectively.
“They did everything better than we did,” Leeds said. “They won the ball better than we did. They created space for themselves better than we did. They found feet better than we did.”
MOUNT ABRAHAM UNION High School junior Stacie Sabourin and Middlebury senior Abby Lane battle for the ball Tuesday afternoon. The Eagles won the game, 1-0. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Eagle midfielders Ernesta McIntosh, Amy Nault and Juniper Nardiello Smith were particularly effective in dictating play, while the Eagle defense of Martin and Jesse McKean in the middle and Morgan Pratt and Anna Hauman on the flanks allowed just those seven shots, two in the second half with the wind at Mount Abe’s backs.
Mount Abe started by launching six unanswered shots, although many were off target — Tiger goalie Molly Campbell made seven saves, four in the first half that included good stops on McIntosh and Stacie Sabourin.
The Tiger defense deserved credit, also, for allowing only one regulation goal vs. the Eagles in two matches. Sweepers Kelsey Smith and Claire Armstrong were again impenetrable, and Marvie Avery, Jesse Hounchell and Lauren Turner all had good moments.
The Tigers’ best stretch came late in the first half. Eagle goalie Zoe Cassels-Brown (four saves) came out quickly to beat Kat Townsend to one ball, denied long-range bids by Andrea Boe and Armstrong, and snared a Boe direct kick.
White almost gave the Eagles the lead late in the half, but headed a McIntosh serve over the bar.
Campbell broke up Nardiello Smith to open the second half, and then the Tigers had their two best chances. First, Martin defended Holmes in the box, but the Eagles could not clear decisively. The Tigers worked the ball into the left side of the box to Moulton, who worked around a defender for a shot from 10 yards out from the post, but fired high.
Then it was all Mount Abe. After a corner kick, the ball bounced to White, out on the right side, and her shot hit the hard turf and bounced higher than Campbell expected, over her and in at 26:03.
With the Eagles pressuring the Tigers all over the field, they were able to possess the ball most of the rest of the way.
Corrigan said his team’s defense is not just the back line. He said it starts with the forwards pressing opponents’ clears and runs through midfielders reading passing lanes and harassing their counterparts, and then to his defenders.
“Our defense has been good all year long, and not just the four in the back and the goalie, but collectively as a group we just don’t let opponents get a lot of good looks at the net,” he said.
That defense and goaltending can point to the Eagles’ eight shutouts in 13 outings.
“I’m incredibly proud of our defensive line,” Martin said. “I think we have the power and communication to carry the team forward and start from the back and push it up to the front.”
Martin agreed with Corrigan that the Eagles have not yet met all their goals — in the back of their mind is the fact the program has never won a state title.
“We’ve got games to win. We’ve definitely got to keep our focus. We don’t want to get too cocky, and we want to stay playing our game and stay with our focus and our tenacity,” Martin said.
Then she added, “I really do believe in this team. I think we can go far.”
If the Tigers and Eagles do end up with the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds, a third game is possible, although the deep D-II field could have plenty to say about that possibility.
Leeds would like to see it.
“I would love a matchup against Mount Abe when we are playing our best soccer and we have our full healthy squad,” she said. “That would be a fun game.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]
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