Tiger boys secure No. 1 seed in D-1 lacrosse playoffs

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Union High School boys’ lacrosse team scored the last two goals of Saturday’s back-and-forth battle with visiting Essex, and that gave the Tigers a 12-11 victory and — unofficially — the top seed in Division I for the first time since 2002.
The 13-3 Tigers will begin the quest for the program’s first title since 2003 and eighth overall by hosting a quarterfinal this weekend, possibly against either No. 8 Woodstock or No. 9 Colchester.
To earn that top seed, MUHS first had to get past Essex (10-5), projected to be the No. 4 seed. Both teams made a number of terrific plays, but also hurt themselves with turnovers, the Hornets more so than the Tigers; while the Tigers where flagged for eight penalties to three for Essex.
Given the result, MUHS Coach Dennis Smith was willing to look past a few lapses.   
“Any win is a good win,” Smith said. “It wasn’t beautiful. We had our ups and downs, and so did they. We’ll take it.”
In the big picture, Smith said he saw positive signs Saturday and in other recent games. His veterans have been steady, while the team’s younger players have increasingly made their presences felt.
On Saturday, two juniors (Jack Hounchell and Ali Abdul Sater) and a sophomore (Trey Kaufmann) scored goals as MUHS rallied from a 9-7 third-period deficit. Senior Connor Quinn (three goals, assist) scored the other two goals in that rally. Hounchell also finished with three scores, and senior middie Cullen Hathaway contributed two goals and two assists. 
“The seniors have stepped up and the younger kids have played better as the year has gone on,” Smith said.  
Two goals proved to be the largest lead either team held all game.
The Tigers led, 4-3, after one period, and could have led by more after winning five of seven draws, if not for Hornet goalie Andrew Lounsbury making four of his 14 saves in the period.
Scoring for Essex in the quarter were Jordan Hines, from Brendan Gleason; Sean Vanzo, on a clever cross-crease feed from David Forbes; and Hines again, from Matthew Olson.
Bobby Ritter went solo for the first Tiger score, Andrew Gleason tallied out front from Hathaway, Hathaway converted from long range, and Hounchell made it 4-3 from Jackson Donahue at 1:16. In the final 10 seconds, Lounsbury stopped Quinn’s stuff attempt, and the Hornets threw long to Brendan Gleason, and Tiger goalie Nathan Lalonde (seven stops) made the save.
The Hornets worked the ball well for high-percentage shots in the second period and took a 7-6 lead. Brendan Gleason made it 4-4 with an over-the-shoulder, no-look shot at 11:16, but the Tigers responded 16 seconds later, when Quinn fed Hounchell.
Hathaway then made the play of the game. Lounsbury carried a clear into Tiger territory, and Hathaway leaped high to intercept his pass, raced downfield and bounced a 35-yard shot into the vacated goal to make it 6-4 at 8:55.
But the Tigers took penalties to stall their momentum, and the Hornets went on a 3-0 run. Vanzo scored a man-up goal at 7:40 from Adams; Gleason scored a shorthanded goal in transition, from defender Liam Donahue; and Gleason added an unassisted goal at 1:23 to create the halftime score.
Quinn tied the score early in the third with an unassisted man-up goal after a mouthguard violation, but Essex started winning draws and controlling the ball. Strong individual moves by Joe Galati and Forbes, the latter at 5:40, gave the Hornets a 9-7 lead.
The Tigers scored another man-up goal at 3:10 to make it 9-8, with Quinn again doing the damage from long range, with an assist from Hathaway at 2:41. Just 17 seconds later, Hounchell rolled from behind the net and stuffed a shot home. A minute after that Quinn snuck a shot into the near corner from the right side, and it was 10-9, Tigers.
“Midway through the third quarter we just started playing better,” Smith said.
The Hornets’ Brendan Gleason struck for his fourth goal with 10 seconds to go in the period, however, and at 10:19 of the fourth Adams made a strong move into the slot to make it 11-10, Hornets. Soon afterward, Lalonde flashed his right foot to deny Olsen and keep it a one-goal game.
Then the Tiger defense of seniors Austin Robinson, Justin Stone and Sam Killorin and freshman Fyn Fernandez tightened up. And at 6:50, Ritter ran down the right side and turned and dished to Kaufmann, who fired a long, high shot home.
At 5:54, Kaufmann, also on the right, set up Abdul Sater at about the same place, and he bounced a shot in to make it 12-11.
Essex threatened late: MUHS took a 30-second penalty at 1:24 and two more penalties at 0:13.4. But Vanzo hit the post, and the Hornets could get only one shot on goal, a Hines bid that Lalonde snatched cleanly, and soon the Tigers were celebrating their No. 1 seed.
“It means we get a little break and we can work on some things and get ready for a game next week,” Smith said. “It gives us confidence, too. We’ve been building up every year and getting a little better. And now we’re No. 1 going into the playoffs.”

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