Winter 2021 Sports Report: Mount Abe
BRISTOL — The winter of 2020-2021 was not the kindest to Mount Abraham sports teams. The COVID pandemic forced the school’s basketball programs, like those elsewhere, to play abbreviated seasons, and neither managed winning records.
At least the hoop athletes could compete: Authorities ruled wrestling to be a dangerous high-contact sport, and the Eagle grapplers joined their peers around the state on the sidelines.
But unless the pandemic worsens and state officials change their minds about greenlighting competition this winter, Mount Abe athletes were looking forward to enjoying full schedules (with masks for all, except wrestlers while on mats), and they and their coaches were feeling hopeful in the preseason.
Coach Martin Clark’s boys’ hoop team graduated most of its front line, but returns a few key players and brings in a crop of juniors he believes can boost the Eagles’ prospects.
And the Eagles were competitive last year, knocking off Middlebury during a 3-5 regular season that included close losses.
Despite the graduation losses on the front line, Clark believes they will hold their own defensively and on the boards.
“We do have some guys with some length. Hopefully we can be a good defensive team,” he said.
It might take a little time for the Eagles to gel at the other end, he said.
“The real questions are going to be whether we can work as a team, and make shots when we need to make shots,” Clark said.
As of the end of the preseason’s first week, Clark had yet to settle on a rotation, and it looked like all 10 of his players could end up seeing minutes.
One player sure to start is senior playmaking swingman Henry Cogswell, entering his third year with the team.
“He’s really worked hard to improve,” Clark said. “If he can get the others involved and use his seniority to bring along the younger guys … I think some good things will happen for us.”
The team’s other four seniors are another swingman, Daniel Rodriguez, a good shooter; strong defensive guard Tristan Parker; inside player and rebounder Noah Gargano; and hard-working forward Tyler Chasse.
Clark is also carrying five juniors: Gavin Bannister, a post player Clark said has a good touch; forward and spot-up shooter Norman Benoit; swingman Dominic DeNapoli, who Clark said has the size to be a good defender and the quickness to attack the basket; and hustling guards Chance Denecker and Collin Dupoise.
The combination of quickness and size is there for the Eagles to succeed if they can blend their talents, Clark said.
“We play kind of a position-less game, so guys have to get on the same page with each other, as far as when to set a pick or when to drive to the basket,” Clark said. “Just playing together and taking what the other team gives us, I think if we can gel as a group we’ll have some success.”
Coach Connie LaRose’s Eagle girls’ hoop program won the D-II title as recently as 2018 and earned the No. 1 seed the following year.
Last year’s one-win COVID-shortened campaign did not much resemble those seasons.
LaRose’s top goal is just to see the Eagles fare better this year, when many players return. One key will simply be confidence in their abilities, she said.
“Last year was a challenge, so anything we do is an improvement. I think we can be a .500 team, maybe better,” LaRose said. “But we’ve got to learn to put the ball in the basket. We’ve got to learn to take shots when they’re there. We’ve got to learn to recognize what each player’s shot is, and (they need to) trust themselves to take it.”
One challenge will be a tough early schedule. LaRose said she hopes to get past that stretch with poise and focus from not only members of the championship field hockey team, but also from athletes from the girls’ soccer team, which overcame a rough start to enjoy a successful season.
“We don’t have an easy opening schedule,” LaRose said. “This is where I’ve got to have some leadership.”
The team has six veterans, seniors Abby Reen, Eliza Bent and Laura Bonar, and juniors Madison Gile, Maia Jensen and Lucy Parker.
Reen is entering her fourth year on the team as a guard/forward, and LaRose believes she can break through offensively. Bonar has nice touch as a post player, and Bent is a tough rebounder and defender.
Jensen is a good ballhandler and shooter who might run the point this season, while Gile and Parker are both athletic two-way guard-forwards.
Joining them are three juniors: Payton Vincent, who LaRose said would see plenty of time at forward; hustling forward Gabby Lafreniere; and Dakota Larocque, who will spell the guards.
Two more players, both sophomores, will practice with the Eagle varsity and split time with the varsity and JV squads, but could earn fulltime varsity status, guard Morgan Barnard and forward Nell Harvey.
Regardless of wins and losses, LaRose wants the Eagles to improve as the season progresses by giving their best in and learning from each game.
“Everybody wants to win, but to go out and make it a game, know you had your chances … and show you’re mentally tough enough, you’re physically tough enough, you have the skills to stay in it,” she said. “And I think we can do that.”
The Eagle wrestling program, which has been on the upswing in recent years, has a new leader, former Rutland High School wrestler Patrick Pfenning, a Burlington tech engineer who has assisted the program in recent years.
Three years ago Pfenning, who wrestled at 182 pounds at Rutland before obtaining an engineering degree at Boston’s Wentworth Institute, was a part-time volunteer assistant working mostly with Mount Abe middle school wrestlers, and two years ago he became a paid assistant.
Former head coach Nick Mayer and volunteers Josh Conant and Kevin Micklas will still assist the program, and Mount Abe middle school shop teacher and former Pennsylvania high school wrestler Alex Peterson takes over as the JV and middle school coach.
Pfenning said although the high school numbers dropped a bit, Peterson should in the long run boost the program.
“We knew the numbers were going to dip because of the COVID stuff, and a lot of the kids are working,” Pfenning said. “But the middle school (team) is really growing a lot, and I think a lot of that has to do with Coach Peterson being available, because he does know the kids as a teacher, and he’s pretty excited about it.”
As well as working with the wrestlers, Pfenning said he enjoys the larger Vermont wrestling scene and its continuity.
“It’s been the same community of people really since I started in 8th grade. A lot of the coaches are the exact same people I grew up with. A lot of the refs are the people I grew up with,” he said. “The wrestling community itself is very strong and close-knit.”
On the mat, the returning headliners are two juniors who reached the state-meet podium as freshmen, Matt Conan, who will probably go at 140 pounds this winter, and Devan Hemingway, who Pfenning has penciled in at 126.
“(Devan) and Matt are really our two more experienced wrestlers. They did a lot of offseason stuff,” he said. “These kids are ready to go.”
Working up the ladder, senior Marine recruit Logan Pierro is set to wrestle at 113. Pfenning noted Pierro has put on almost 20 pounds of muscle in the past two years. “Hopefully that translates on the mat,” he said.
Senior Lucas Philips is back for his second season and will probably go at 145. Pfenning noted Philips missed a lot of his second season due to injury, but in the preseason was showing signs of rounding back into form. “He’s going to shake the rust off … and do pretty well,” he said.
Junior Lucas Grover also returns and should slot in at 152 or maybe 160. Pfenning said Grover shows a lot of competitive spirit. “He’s definitely scrappy,” he said.
Sophomore Wyatt Allenson will make his varsity debut at 195. Pfenning said Allenson showed plenty of promise during his two years in middle school.
Finally, senior Hunter Gorton returns for his third season, and he will compete at 220. “He’s always been a really sound wrestler,” Pfenning said.
The new coach then summed things up: “We’re really excited for the season.”
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