Sports

Andy Kirkaldy: Fall sports season was full of highlights

Saturday brought the curtain down on the 2019 fall high school sports season, which ended with an admirable Mount Abraham field hockey team winning its second straight Division II title on UVM’s slick turf surface.
This year the second-seeded Eagles defeated another local team that came up just short, top-seeded Otter Valley. Although OV earned the only No. 1 seed among programs from the four local schools, there were plenty of legitimate title contenders: Middlebury football and boys’ soccer and Mount Abe and Vergennes girls’ soccer all joined Eagle field hockey in earning No. 2 seeds, and OV football nabbed a No. 3 seed in Division III with a dramatic late-season road win.
And OV junior Mia Politano fired an 84 on Oct. 8 at the Proctor-Pittsford Country Club to become the D-II girls’ golf medalist for the second straight year. Politano’s total was four strokes better than the D-II runner-up and five strokes better than the D-I medalist. Politano accomplished that feat despite not playing golf full-time this fall because she started at midfield for Coach John White’s OV girls’ soccer team.
And as we’re looking back at fall highlights in the first of two installments, also of note were the MUHS boys’ and girls’ cross country teams each finishing third in D-II in Oct. 26’s high school cross-country championships hosted by Thetford Academy.
At that meet VUHS junior Ben Huston led all local runners by taking sixth-place in the boys’ D-II race, with teammates Gabe Praamsma (11th) and Erich Reitz (18th) not far behind.
MUHS junior Jack Christner led the Tiger boys by taking 10th, and senior Will Carpenter exceeded expectations by finishing 20th.
The Tiger girls were paced by seniors Isabel Olson and Mary Ann Eastman in 13th and 14th, respectively.
But a season is a journey, and these are just the final results.
It’s easy to get caught up in sports as a zero-sum enterprise, with, for example, one winner and 15 losers in a 16-team division. Moments along the way are really the stuff of which seasons are made. These are a few during the soccer season that stood out, with football and field hockey to follow next time.
• On Sept. 10 a 1-1 Tiger boys’ team still seeking to find its identity visited a Vergennes squad just as hungry for a win, and one that always plays the Tigers tough. The score remained at 0-0 well into the second half, and a loose ball rolled to Commodore left middie Jarret Muzzy 12 yards out from the left post.
Muzzy drilled the ball toward the left side, but Tiger freshman goalie Owen Lawton made a spectacular full-out dive to punch the ball just wide left.
Three minutes later Tiger defender Devon Kearns snuck into the VUHS box and tapped in senior Owen Palcsik’s free kick for the game-winner, but the younger Owen, in his third start, probably made the bigger play.
• On Sept. 16 host MUHS defeated the OV girls, 6-2, scoring five times in the second half after Coach Wendy Leeds moved sophomore Ivy Doran up from defense to help sort things out in the middle of the field. But before then OV senior Olivia White showed why she’s one of the state’s top players by setting up teammate Julia Eastman for two goals. The first was a crafty through ball that Eastman angled home.
The second? White used her ball skills to lure in and then befuddle three defenders along the right sideline before rolling the ball to a wide-open Eastman in the box. Eastman happily drilled it into the back of the net. White finished the season with 23 goals and 10 assists. 
• On Sept. 21 the Mount Abe boys rolled past visiting Spaulding, 5-0. All the goals were well executed, but one stuck out as what British commentators like to call a “wonderstrike.”
In the second half’s 23rd minute a long diagonal pass sent junior Eagle midfielder Lucas Jensen down the right side. Jensen turned and sent a strong, low cross right across the top of the box. Directly out from the center of the goal, senior midfielder Silas Burgess ran full-speed onto the ball and one-timed an absolute rocket back just inside the right post. It was the kind of play coaches hope to draw up and fans go to games to see.
• On Oct. 5 the Commodore boys again gave the Tigers all they could handle and were just 80 seconds away from earning a 0-0 double-overtime tie when disaster, disguised as Eben Jackson, struck.
Alex Bleich, maybe 32 or 33 yards out from the Commodore goal in the center of the field, fed Jackson, cutting from right to left into the box, open at last after being carefully shadowed for almost 99 minutes.
Bleich led Jackson across the top of the box, and Jackson turned toward the VUHS goal, with the ball on his strong foot, his left. Jackson laced the 15-yard golden goal back into the lower right corner with 1:20 to go. It was Jackson’s third straight late game-winner, two in double overtime.
• On Oct. 15 the Mount Abe girls hosted VUHS. The Eagles were coming off a tough week, having lost two out of three on the road, both by one goal. Mount Abe senior striker Addy Harris made sure the Eagles got off to a fast start, launching three shots in the first 4:20. The third went in. Harris collected the ball on the right sideline, raced around the VUHS left back toward the goal right along the end line, and before the Commodore defense could respond powered a low shot into the near corner. The Eagles went on to win, 3-0. Now that’s the way to set the tone.
• On Oct. 25 the Eagle boys visited MUHS for a D-II quarterfinal after winning a first-round road playoff game. Two plays stood out, one in a scoreless first half in which the Eagles had a golden chance. The Tigers failed to handle cleanly a long ball into the box. It bounced to Eagle striker Branden Reynolds on the left side. Reynolds fired, but Kearns raced over from the scrum in the middle to knock the bid wide to the left.
Bleich, who seemed to show up at the right time a lot late in the season, provided the goal-ahead goal in the 11th minute of the second half, although middie Anthony Garner did the heavy lifting. Garner handled a throw-in deep down the right side, beat a defender to the end line, dribbled toward goal, and sent a short pass to Bleich about six yards out. Bleich one-timed it home, and the Tigers were on the way to a 3-0 win.
• On Oct. 29 Bleich struck again about two minutes into overtime in the Tigers’ 2-1 semifinal win over Harwood. The Tigers worked the ball deep down the right sideline, setting up junior center midfielder Oliver Poduschnick for one of his long throw-ins into the Harwood box. Bleich nodded the throw toward the goal, and then turned and moved toward the near post. A Harwood defender attempted to clear the ball, but it went right to Bleich, and he buried a 10-yard blast high into the far side of the net to trigger a Tiger celebration, including Bleich standing and raising his arms in triumph.
• On Oct. 30 three plays stood out in the Commodore girls’ nailbiting 2-1 semifinal win over Leland & Gray, although one largely because of an exceptional body of work. In the seventh minute the Commodores were pressing on the right flank and the ball popped to center midfielder Emily Rooney.
Rooney took a couple touches into the box and pounded a typically low, hard shot just inside the right post to make it 1-0. It proved to be the final goal of her standout five-year VUHS career, one that began when she was called up as an 8th-grader. Rooney was once again named an all-state athlete this fall.
But senior Commodore goalie Kate Gosliga was the top star for VUHS on that Wednesday. Leland & Gray took it to VUHS in the second half, and twice Gosliga ranged out to the penalty stripe to stop breakaways by Rebel striker Ellie Longo, once by pouncing on the ball just as Longo kicked it, and once by sprawling to block Longo’s right-footed shot with her legs. Gosliga signed up as a goalie as a junior and proved that day she had learned to play at a high level.  
• On Saturday the Tiger boys enjoyed a good first 50 minutes in their 2-0 loss to undefeated Stowe, but the Raiders took over once they netted their first goal in the second half’s 11th minute.
Post-game interviews after a loss, especially in a championship game, are never the most enjoyable moments for either the coach or the observer. But in a way this one was a highlight.
The teams I covered this fall were really all easy to root for. Just sticking to soccer, what’s not to enjoy about the MUHS girls, who never got down on themselves despite a tough season? The OV teams showed nothing but class. The Eagle girls were the most outgoing and positive group you can imagine. The VUHS boys were tough and bounced back from a slow start. The Eagle boys had chemistry and resilience. The Commodore girls were exceptionally supportive of one another.
The Tiger boys? I’ve played pickup soccer with a couple of them and one of their coaches; they’re good guys. Another senior has volunteered for years at Elderly Services Inc. Several parents are either former teammates, pickup basketball buddies, or co-workers. The coach, Reeves Livesay, is married to someone I’ve known since she was a toddler.  
Am I biased? Of course. I root for all the local teams. And when I talked to Reeves about them, it was apparent he really liked them, too.
There was just a little catch in his voice when Reeves said this, even though it was really nothing more or much different than Dennis Smith or Stacey Edmunds or Peter Maneen or Dustin Corrigan or Bobby Russell said when their likable (and in Reeves’ case overachieving) teams came up just short this fall: “We have 12 seniors that really brought this team together.”

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