Andy Kirkaldy: A fall full of football, field hockey drama
In reviewing notes from high school football and field hockey games this fall it struck me how many times the most memorable plays came on defense.
In looking back at soccer highlights last week more often goals stood out, possibly because scoring is rare in the sport, but also because so many games were close and decided by moments of offensive brilliance amidst the steady defense by the several strong local teams.
In football, before the Tigers’ Division I semifinal, the Middlebury Union High School football team allowed only 11 points per game. Obviously defense was a strength.
In field hockey, Division II champion Mount Abraham relied on three senior backs and a senior goalie, while D-II finalist Otter Valley offered a multi-year senior starter in goal and a talented senior sweeper. It was tough to score on both teams.
Unsurprisingly, then, defense provided this fall’s field hockey and football memorable highlights:
• Aug. 31, Tiger football vs. Fair Haven: Linebacker C.J. Bryant, arguably the MUHS defensive player of the game, set the tone on the game’s first play from scrimmage by bursting in the edge and sacking Fair Haven QB Evan Reed for a five-yard loss. Bryant was in on another sack in the first half as the Tigers took a 34-0 lead and held the Slaters to 48 yards.
• Sept. 5, Eagle-Tiger field hockey: Early in the second half Tiger senior standout Lexi Bartlett stickhandled past two Eagles in the circle and in on Eagle senior goalie Kira Murray. Bartlett tried to pull the ball around Murray, but she dove and sticked the ball cleanly away from the talented Tiger, denying even a shot on goal.
The Eagles had the lead, but Tigers countered with 1:03 to go in regulation. Senior forward Phoebe Smith controlled in the center of the circle and fired a slick pass to the left post, where junior wing Clara Wolff one-timed it in to forge a 1-1 tie. Practice makes perfect — the Tigers had worked on the play the day before.
• Sept. 13, OV-Eagle football: Mount Abe/Vergennes was driving toward a potential tying or go-ahead score when a penalty wiped out a gain that would have put them within the range of sophomore kicker/quarterback Adam Mansfield, who had a good day throwing the ball.
But the Eagles still had a chance before OV sophomore safety Brady Diaz stepped in front of a Mansfield pass at the OV 28 and raced down the right sideline as time expired. His 72-yard touchdown return sealed the Otters’ hard-fought victory. OV would go on to reach the D-III semifinals.
• Sept. 17, OV-MUHS field hockey: The Tigers were decent this year, taking another step forward. But this was OV’s day, a 7-0 win. The best goal came when sophomore whippet Riley Keith went on a 40-yard run, racing past a couple defenders, dodging another at the top of the circle, and just before the last defender could reach her firing a waist-high shot home from near the penalty stripe.
• Sept. 27, Tiger football vs. Essex: The Tigers went three-and-out to open the game, and the Hornets moved down the field to a first-and-goal at the Tiger 8. Hornet quarterback Sam Bowen then tried to run wide, and Tiger nose tackle Nikolai Luksch shot through and blew up the play for a 10-yard loss. The Hornets kicked a field goal, but the momentum had shifted in what became a 27-9 Tiger win.
“Holding them to a field goal, that was huge,” said quarterback Tim Goettelmann. “Then we turned around and put up points.”
• Oct. 1, Eagle field hockey: The Eagles didn’t have their best game against visiting D-I frontrunner CVU, but showed a lot of defensive grit. Murray had another big game with 19 saves in a 2-1 loss, but senior Sydney Perlee made the stop of the game — a full-out goal-line dive to knock a Redhawk shot wide left.
• Oct. 19, Tiger football vs. BFA. St. Albans. The highlight was really just a routine play for explosive running back Tyler Buxton, an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter in which Buxton, running right, was hit at the line of scrimmage, but as usual was slowed little by first contact and burst five more yards downfield, where a couple more BFA-St. Albans tacklers failed to bring him down. Buxton then broke the run wide, and finally two Bobwhites wrestled him out of bounds.
Buxton topped 1,000 yards on that run, which capped a 199-yard evening. Buxton submitted more spectacular runs that night, but that was the effort that gave him the milestone.
• Oct. 24, Eagle-Tiger field hockey quarterfinal in Bristol: The Tigers, fresh off a first-round playoff win, came out hard. But the Eagles prevailed, 2-0, striking for the game-winner late in the first half. It came on a penalty corner on a string of crisp passes finished by sophomore Molly Laurent.
Txuxa Konczal inserted to Abby Reen at the top of the circle, and she slid the ball to her right to Maddie Gile. Gile fired the ball across the goalmouth, and Laurent tipped it inside the left post. Tiger goalie Ileigh Aube (seven saves in a solid effort) had no chance.
• Nov. 1, Tiger football semifinal vs. Burr & Burton: Things didn’t go the Tigers’ way in the 54-39 loss to eventual champion BBA. Long TD runs by Buxton and Thatcher Trudeau stood out, but the most impressive play again came on the defense and showed the Tigers’ grit. In the second half BBA all-state quarterback Joey McCoy burst up the middle for a long run toward what looked like a certain touchdown. But Buxton raced out of seemingly nowhere and caught McCoy from behind with an incredible shoestring tackle on the Tiger 5-yard-line. Never say die.
• Nov. 2, No. 1 OV vs. No. 2 Mount Abe field hockey in the D-II state final: In the first half neither team found rhythm on the speedy UVM turf, although OV senior goalie Ellie Ross made three outstanding saves in one sequence. Ross performed brilliantly in finishing with 10 stops as the Eagles took charge for most of the second half in a 1-0 win.
But her counterpart at the other end, Murray, worked a shutout, and made one stop that was arguably the play of the year. Gile rapped in a Konczal feed with 11:19 to go for the game’s only goal, but then the Otters came alive.
About a minute later OV’s Riley Keith bolted down the right side into the Eagle circle. Keith drilled a low shot toward the left side that looked to have Murray beat. But the goalie lunged back with her stick to block the bid and make her fourth, final and most unforgettable save of the championship game.
Soon afterward the Eagles celebrated, and the county’s high school season had come to a fitting conclusion.
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