Teams — and fans — made winter memorable
ADDISON COUNTY — Buzzer beaters. Rivalry games decided in overtime. Dramatic rallies. Clutch performances. Championships — on trails, on mats, in an old barn in Barre, and at a shiny college rink — packed with fans.
And those fans this winter. Noisy, chanting fans. Sign-carrying, face-painting, costume-wearing fans. Fans consoling athletes. Fans mobbing winners.
All of them showing up for the first time indoors since early in 2020, when COVID-19 was a far-off, if unsettling, rumor.
The biggest crowd? More than 2,100 showed up to watch the Middlebury College women’s hockey team claim the NCAA Division III title. It was almost certainly the largest gathering for a local school sporting event since the Panther men’s hockey heyday of more than a decade ago.
There would have been a big crowd regardless, but thanks to a great decision by the college administration to allow free admission to see that talented team it was probably even larger.
The college made that move to honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which paved the way for more women’s sports. Well done.
Yes, fans made sports in these parts even more fun this winter. Student sections in their coordinated outfits, each with their own rituals — “Spark ’em” from Mount Abraham’s fans, binoculars from Middlebury’s corner of the gym — brought life and smiles back to the games.
And then there was what they watched.
Sure, there were championships. As well as the Middlebury women adding another national title and unbeaten season (a feat also accomplished by the Panther field hockey team this fall, and keep an eye on women’s lax), the Eagle girls’ basketball team made a remarkable run from a No. 6 seed to a D-II crown, and the Tiger girls’ Nordic team cruised to a D-II title.
Three wrestlers held up the boys’ end of the championship bargain: Seniors Taylor Stearns of Vergennes at 152 pounds and Devan Hemingway of Mount Abe at 120 lived up to their top seeds and prevailed, and MUHS freshman Avery Carl, seeded second, pinned the top seed at 130 to join them atop the podium.
But there was so much more than the titles.
In a good showing overall for local wrestling teams, MUHS finished fourth in Vermont, one point ahead of Otter Valley in fifth and just a few points ahead of VUHS in sixth. All have wrestlers coming back, and the smaller Mount Abe team has a strong middle school program that should boost its numbers.
The MUHS dance team performed well again. In the February state championship competition held in the VUHS gym, the Tigers took second in the Pom field and third in the Hip Hop.
On the ski trails the Tiger boys’ Nordic team took third in D-II, with sophomore Baxter Harrington and junior Eliot Schneider leading the way.
The Tiger hockey teams both landed around .500, with big wins along the way. Avery Gale and McKenna Raymond popped in OT game-winners for the girls.
The Tiger boys got nice seasons from young forward Kellan Bartlett and Toby Draper and senior goalie Eddie Hodde, among others, and picked up an opening-round road playoff victory before giving then undefeated top seed Hartford a battle in a quarterfinal setback that went down to the wire.
The Eagles and Commodores made the most noise in boys’ hoop. The 16-6 Eagles posted their first winning season since 2008. Their efforts included going on a 12-game winning streak, posting their first playoff win since 2009, and hosting the program’s first postseason game since 2008.
The D-III Commodores went 17-8. They earned the program’s most wins and reached Barre for the first time since the program won the D-II championship in 2013.
The games between the two teams were gems. At VUHS, the Eagles fought back to take a two-point lead in the fourth period, but a huge three by VUHS senior Tim Ashley at 0:31 and his subsequent two free throws helped the Commodores prevail by five.
The Eagles later had their day at home. This time the Eagles led most of the way, but VUHS rallied to force OT behind 25 points from Ashley. But in extra time the Eagles got two Chance Denecker three-pointers and three Henry Cogswell free throws to win, 64-57.
The Tiger and Otter boys had rebuilding seasons, but don’t tell VUHS and Mount Abe. On Feb. 14 at MUHS, Tiger junior Willem Berry hit a three to give his team a 51-49 lead in the late going, but VUHS sophomore Tyler Bergmans scored the game’s final four points, including a layup at the final horn, as the Commodores escaped.
A week later at OV the Eagles needed two overtimes to subdue the Otters, 62-58. Otter Elijah Tucker-Bryant hit a three-pointer late in regulation to tie the game, and Logan Letourneau sank a three late in the first OT to knot the score again. In the second overtime Denecker and Cogswell free throws proved to be decisive.
It was that kind of year for the girls’ hoop teams, too. The D-II champion Eagles finished 16-8, but their hiccups included losses to local rivals.
They fell at VUHS in mid-February, 43-32. The Commodores held the Eagles to 10 first-half points and got 15 points from senior Felicia Poirier. Mount Abe had won by 19 when the teams first met. VUHS finished a rebuilding season at 8-14, including a playoff win.
That game was not as much of a stunner as the Tigers’ Jan. 22 win at Mount Abe. The Eagles led MUHS by 11 entering the fourth quarter, but the Tigers buckled down on defense, and their shots began to fall. Junior forward Ele Sellers scored nine of her 21 points in the final eight minutes as the Tigers outscored the Eagles by 15-2 in the period to earn a 42-40 win.
The Tigers would go on to finish 9-13, including a first-round playoff win, but like VUHS could say they defeated the D-II champs.
The OV girls did not fare as well vs. the Eagles, losing by 27-11 in December before they hit their stride. They bounced back to edge MUHS later that month and rolled at Vergennes in January. Alice Keith was the heart of the team, and different players helped in the scoring column almost every night. The Otters finished 12-10 and three points short of a quarterfinal upset.
There was no stopping the Eagle girls in the postseason. The No. 6 Eagles held serve at home, and then knocked off No. 3 Fair Haven on the road, No. 2 Enosburg in Barre, and No. 4 Spaulding in Barre for the crown.
At different points along the way seniors Abby Reen and Laura Bonar and juniors Maia Jensen, Madi Gile, Lucy Parker and Payton Vincent all stood out offensively and defensively for the Eagles.
The Tiger girls’ Nordic team proved to be simply unstoppable in claiming the D-II title. Freshmen Beth McIntosh and Ava Schneider paced MUHS with top-10 finishes on both days of the two-day title meet. Junior Lia Robinson and senior Astrid Olsen rounded out the Tiger foursome that took care of business in dominant performances in Craftsbury and at Rikert Nordic Center.
And speaking of unbeatable, how about the Middlebury College women’s hockey team?
Not only did the Panthers earn the program’s first NCAA crown since 2006, after years of knocking on the door, but they went 27-0, becoming the first team to win the title with a perfect record.
And they faced adversity in the final to do so, overcoming the best team they faced all season, several unusual officiating decisions, and a tying goal against them with 0.1 second to go.
How did the Panthers respond? By outshooting their opponent, Gustavus Adolphus, by 7-0 in overtime of their victory. In other words, like champions.
What a way for the winter season to end. We can only hope for anything like it this spring.
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