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Ghosts fail to scare Commodore boys’ soccer; Spartans next

VERGENNES — The No. 6 Vergennes Union High School boys’ soccer team controlled almost all of Tuesday’s 5-0 win in a first-round Division III playoff game against visiting No. 11 Randolph, but broke it open when junior midfielder Jeffrey Stearns scored twice in first 3:13 of the second half.
Senior co-captains Ezekiel Palmer and Jack Halpin (a defender who scored his first career goal) and sophomore Jacob Kadric also found the net for VUHS, junior Josias Salomao set up two goals, and sophomore goalie Gabriel Kadric worked a three-save shutout against the 3-11-1 Ghosts. 
The 9-6 Commodores will next visit No. 3 Winooski on Friday at 3 p.m. The Spartans improved to 14-1 by blitzing No. 14 Oxbow on Tuesday, 11-2.
But those records are somewhat misleading. The Spartans played mostly D-III games, with D-IV and D-II games sprinkled in (Winooski went 3-1 vs. D-II). The Commodores played nine D-II and five D-I games, and Halpin said he and his teammates believe that schedule has readied them for the postseason.
“The competition we’ve played against is a lot stronger than the other teams we’ll be playing against, so that will help us be more prepared moving forward,” said Halpin, a senior back who is part of a defense that has posted five shutouts in the past nine games — during which VUHS has gone 7-2 after a 1-4 start.
Coach Kevin Hayes said the Commodores have progressed at both ends of the field this season. He noted the “five clean sheets for us in nine games” as well as better ball movement and finishing. He said that improvement showed on Tuesday.
“We’ve put it together. The last couple of games we’ve been moving the ball well, and we put the ball in the net today. We looked good. We took our opportunities, which we’ve got to do,” Hayes said. “We were patient, and things came together. There were good things all around from the guys.”
The Commodores outshot the Ghosts, 28-12 in the game (13-3 in the first half alone). But the good looks at goal were few early on, despite a nice run early on by middie Aiden Gebo set up by Palmer and then a series of three corner kicks.
The Ghosts had a chance in the 15th minute against the run of play. But from near the penalty stripe pesky forward Liam Connolly shot wide right at the end of a long run, in part because Halpin recovered to put him under pressure.
VUHS soon afterward earned a direct kick near the Ghost box. Nathan Wojciehowski blasted it off the Ghost wall. A defender blocked a Stearns shot on the rebound, which went to Palmer, who saw Ghost goalie Levi West pick up his low shot to end the threat.
West (11 saves) also denied Wojciehowski on an Avery Husk feed soon afterward, but could not deal with Palmer’s long-range bomb at 17:56. The shot knuckled to West’s right, and as he lost his footing on the wet turf trying to adjust the ball went off his hands and in.
Randolph briefly had the run of play late in the half, and VUHS goalie Gabriel Kadric tracked down two long shots for two of his three saves on the day.
VUHS — and Stearns — took charge after the break. Stearns’s first goal, at 38:30, started with Palmer cutting in from the left and serving to the goalmouth. The ball bounced to the top of the box, and Stearns curled a left-footed shot into the upper right corner.
At 36:47 Palmer fed Salomao to the left of the goal, and Salomao slid the ball back to Stearns in about the same spot. This time Stearns slammed the ball into the net’s left side.
The VUHS defense at times looked out of sorts, and the Commodores were fortunate Connolly shot a loose ball wide. But Halpin and Palmer blocked shots in the eighth minute, and in the 25th minute Stearns blocked back-to-back shots at the top of the box.
Hayes said he was not concerned about the occasional lapse.
“We didn’t play our best, but we put our bodies on the line when we needed to and blocked some shots,” Hayes said. “They’ll be sharp for the next game, I really believe so.”
The Commodores erased any doubt about the outcome down the stretch. After Palmer was taken down in the box, Hayes waved Halpin up from the back to take the penalty kick at 12:27. Later Hayes said Halpin was the only senior on the team who had not scored a varsity goal.
Halpin changed that status by slamming a shot into the right side to make it 4-0.
“It felt so good. I always wanted to score,” said the career defender.
In the final minute Salomao and Jacob Kadric broke in two-on-one, and Kadric left-footed Salomao’s feed from the right side just inside the left post.
Now the Commodores will head to Winooski for the next step in what they hope can be a deep playoff run.
“We were nervous for the first playoff game, but now we can go on to Winooski and see how it goes,” Hayes said. “We’re feeling good.”
Halpin said the Commodores won’t be cocky, but will be ready.
“The chemistry has really come together,” he said. “I think we’re really confident, especially with this win under our belt.”

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