Sports

Winter 2021 Sports Report: VUHS

VERGENNES — As is the case with coaches and athletes in all the local schools, those at VUHS were looking forward to a full schedule this winter, assuming the latest COVID variants don’t knock the Commodores’ voyages off course.

Where those voyages will lead if all goes well will, almost certainly, vary.

What was arguably the most successful team at VUHS returning this winter? Indoor track. But that was two winters ago (there was no indoor track in Vermont last winter) and none of the runners who helped the Commodore boys win five races in the 2020 state meet is back. Meanwhile, the team has a new coach who has also taken over the school’s cross-country and outdoor track programs.

Next up would be the VUHS girls’ hoop team, which made it to the title game in Barre this past winter. But only three players return.

Also succeeding last year was the VUHS boys’ basketball team. Unlike other Commodore programs, that group returns almost everyone from a squad that compiled a winning record and hosted and won a playoff game.

The real outlier this past winter was the Commodore wrestling squad. The grapplers never made it to the mat last winter because wrestling was deemed too dangerous at the height of the pandemic. They’re back now, but only three podium finishers return from the group that in 2020 helped VUHS finish fifth in Vermont.

What to expect?

INDOOR TRACK & FIELD

New Indoor Track & Field Coach Mary Neffinger understands the reluctance of many athletes to run through the halls wearing masks, and she expects the numbers to swell for her spring track program, as they did for her cross-country teams in the fall.

“There are a lot more people who are going to sign up in the spring,” she said.

As it stands, senior Madeline DeGraaf, sophomore Ryder Messinger, and freshmen Rory Couture, Grey Fearon and Torrey Hanna make up the entire team, barring last-minute additions. DeGraaf, Fearon and Hanna all ran for the cross-country team, while Messinger won gold this past spring as part of the Commodore boys’ four-by-400-meter relay team. Neffinger said Couture is a speedy soccer player who is new to track.

While DeGraaf has run longer distances in the past, Neffinger said she will join Messinger and probably Couture at 300 meters this winter, while all three are likely to compete at 55 meters as well.

Fearon and Hanna might run at 3,000 meters, but Neffinger said they will also focus at 1,000 and 1,500 meters.

Neffinger also plans to introduce new wrinkles — jumping and throwing. Fearon was a shot-putter in middle school and would like to pick up the shot again, while Couture has expressed an interest in the long jump. And Neffinger has found mats tucked away in storage that will allow them to do so.

“We’re going to start bringing field events back, which will be fun,” she said.

Neffinger will also enjoy working with her athletes.

“They’re great. They’re really self-motivated,” she said.

GIRLS’ BASKETBALL

VUHS GIRLS’ BASKETBALL

Coach Billy Waller’s Commodore girls came up short in that visit to Barre last spring in part because one of the team’s three returning players, junior point guard Kyra Bradford, was hurt late in their stirring semifinal victory at Windsor.

The only other players back this season are versatile senior Felicia Poirier, who will share ball-handling responsibilities with Bradford and be counted on at both ends of the court, and senior post player Riley Dubois.

Waller acknowledged the obvious after the rest of his team graduated.

“There’s no trying to replicate last year. We’re not even running the same offenses,” he said.

But he said the three veterans are determined to leave a legacy of hard work and positive attitudes no matter the results.

“What I like is I can rely on the backbone of those three, Felicia, Riley and Kyra, and they all have come with the same attitude they had last year. They expect to do well, they expect to be in games, and they expect to compete,” Waller said. “They work hard, and they have now taken on the role of leading the younger kids.”

Waller said the Commodores will still play pressure man-to-man defense, although possibly more often in half-court looks rather than full-court because they will not be as deep.

To start with, only three players will join the veterans as regular varsity players: senior forward Geneva Verburg, junior guard Jasmine Little, and sophomore guard Kaelin Sullivan.

For each game Waller said he would add to the mix three of the following seven players, depending on “who does well in practice that week” — sophomore guards Emerson Rice and Alaina LeBeau, sophomore guard/forwards Ava Almeida and Kayla Lawrence, sophomore forwards Acadia Clark and Katie LaBerge, and freshman post player Kendra Jackson.

One or more could also earn permanent varsity slots, Waller added.

On offense the Commodores will try to spread the floor and attack the basket rather than rely on the post play of the past couple seasons. But Waller said the key will be defense.

“The current goal is to make sure we can put five kids on the floor every night who can compete defensively,” Waller said.

And the team’s goal?

“Compete every night,” Waller said.

BOYS’ BASKETBALL

VUHS BOYS’ BASKETBALL

Coach Josh Carter said the Commodore boys have high hopes after their solid winter last season, which ended with an overtime road quarterfinal loss to the eventual champion.

“I think the basketball IQ of this group is really high, and I also think there’s a sense of togetherness within this group that makes them really confident,” Carter said. “Those are the two things that make me feel really good about them.”

In the preseason he had made some decisions about the starting lineup, while there was competition elsewhere on a deep team.

Sophomore Tyler Bergmans, the team’s leading scorer this past winter, will likely handle the ball, but also has the size and versatility to play on the wing or in the post. Senior Hayden Bowden will start at guard or small forward, and senior Ian Henderson looks to have the nod in the middle.

Also looking for starting jobs are senior Tim Ashley and junior Elijah Duprey at guard and junior Abram Francis at forward.

Junior Xavier DeBlois and sophomore Levi Cogger might be next in line for time at guard, at least to start with, and seniors Alisdair Chauvin and Eric Tarte will be looking to work their way into the mix.

Adam Clark will spell Henderson at center, and Carter said sophomore Oakley Francis could work his way into the front-court rotation. Senior Derek Vorsteveld brings size off the bench, and junior Jacob Aunchman could also work his way into time in the forward positions.

Carter said it will be important for the Commodores to pay attention to the fundamentals.

“We have to be able to share the ball, because we have a lot of skilled players. We have to defend and basically rebound the basketball. If we do those three things, share the ball, rebound and defend, we’ll be in good shape,” he said.

Carter added many of the players worked on their games over the summer because of their motivation to build on what they accomplished this past winter.

“This group returns with a lot of confidence knowing that that’s how close they were to moving onto the next round and potentially playing in a final,” Carter said. “So I think they’re really confident in themselves coming into this year.”

WRESTLING

VUHS WRESTLING

As has been the case with other wrestling programs around the state, Coach Eugene Stearns’s VUHS team lost numbers from two years ago after the lost COVID season. In the preseason Stearns was coaching only seven high school wrestlers, including three sophomores and a freshmen new to the varsity level.

But he said the group doesn’t lack for ability and middle school experience; all have at least three years under their belts.

“Even the young kids, though, they’ve been wrestling for a while and have really good ability,” Stearns said. “All of them can place, for sure. I have no doubts about it. But it’s a long season. Making it through without injuries and getting everybody to peak at the right time is going to be key.”

The three upperclassmen all made the state meet podium two years ago. Senior Taylor Stearns led the team with a third-place finish, and juniors Eli Brace and Caden Howell each recorded top-six results as freshmen.

Stearns will wrestle at 152 or 160 pounds this winter; Brace looks set for 126, or possibly 120; while Coach Stearns said Howell has muscled up and is “looking sharp” at 182.

Sophomore Evan Ambrose weighed in at 120 in the preseason, sophomore Tyrell Lavoie at 145, freshman Isaac Preston at 182, and sophomore Jamison Couture at 220.

Stearns expects his younger wrestlers to come on strong as the season progresses, even if they get their feet wet at the JV level in the early going before taking on varsity competition.

Even starting out at JV, Stearns said by late in the season underclassmen would be holding their own at the varsity level.

“It’s a good group of kids, very talented,” he said.

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