Skiers, wrestlers rule winter sports

AVA SCHNEIDER CELEBRATES at the finish line as she completes the anchor leg for the Tiger girls’ winning relay team at Rikert Outdoor Center, sealing the team’s overall victory. Independent photo/Steve James

ADDISON COUNTY — While all the local high school teams had their memorable moments this winter, the athletes who ended up taking home titles prevailed in the most elemental of the season’s sports, both requiring the maximum stamina and determination. 

They wore ski gloves and goggles and glided along — or slogged uphill on — wooded trails, trying to do so faster than their competitors. 

And they donned singlets and helmets and battled on mats, working to outmuscle and outwit their one-on-one opponents until they were the ones having their hands raised at the ends of matches.

Those athletes were the Middlebury Union girls’ and boys’ Nordic ski teams, and one senior wrestler from each of the county’s high schools: Mount Abe’s Devan Hemingway, who repeated as Vermont’s 120-pound champion; Eli Brace at 132 pounds, voted the Outstanding Wrestler at the state tournament; and Tiger Nick Sheldrick, who pinned his way to the 285-pound crown. 

EAGLE SENIOR DEVAN Hemingway gains the upper hand in the 120-pound final. Hemingway claimed his second-straight Vermont title.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Brace

Otter Valley, with the deepest stable of wrestlers, finished third to lead the local teams at the wrestling tournament. Tucker Babcock at 152 and Lincoln Wilcox at 132 finished second, and brothers Caleb Whitney at 138 and Isaac Whitney at 182 both finished third.

Those two Nordic teams and three individual wrestling champs dominated the competition. 

But possibly none did so more than the Tiger girls’ Nordic team. Four skiers, Beth McIntosh, Ava Schneider, Mary Harrington and Lia Robinson (the only senior) scored all the Tiger points as they finished an amazing 70 points ahead of second-place Montpelier in the two-day championship meet, first in Craftsbury and then at the Rikert Outdoor Center in Ripton.

McIntosh won the freestyle race on day one, Schneider and McIntosh ran 2-3 in the classic race on day two, and all four finished in the top nine in both days. They also teamed up for two huge relay wins.

FRESHMAN GUARD CONNOR Denis, being lifted in the air, is mobbed by his Otter Valley teammates after his buzzer-beating shot gave them a win at Mount Abe.
Independent photo/Steve James

The Tiger boys also breezed, by 39 points over Montpelier. Senior Eliot Schneider (who was first at Rikert), junior Baxter Harrington and senior Trey Bosworth scored on both days, with Matias Citarella and Haaken Olsen taking turns as the fourth scorer and relay participant.

Indoor track and field athletes from VUHS and Mt. Abe also made their mark at the D-II championship meet at UVM.  Commodore Calvin Gramling won the boys’ 1,000-meter race, Eagle Ruby Jean Hall took second in the girls’ 55-meter hurdles, Eagle Joseph Darling finished third in the boys’ long jump and fourth in the triple jump, and Commodore Calder Rakowski was third in the boys’ 600. Two VUHS boys’ relay teams also took thirds.

Of course, there are many ways to evaluate successful seasons, including how individuals mesh as groups, how they respond to adversity, how they improve in the course of a campaign, and how closely athletes and teams approach their potential. By those tales of the tape most groups measured up well.

Another Tiger girls’ team probably had the most successful winter among local squads, but was edged in its final competition. The Middlebury dance squad won all of its Hip-Hop outings except one in the regular season, but the team finished second in late February in both Hip-Hop and Pom at the state championship competition in a packed Vergennes gymnasium.

Meanwhile, most other teams found themselves either just above or just below .500 this winter, with ultimately none truly making a run at championships, if faring well on other criteria. 

SENIOR MARY JOHNSON is ready to launch off the vaulting apparatus on Dec. 21 during the Tiger gymnastic team’s home meet, its first of the season in the Middlebury Union Middle School gym. Independent photo/Steve James

Looking at wins and losses, both Mount Abe basketball teams stood on the top rung of the local ladder. Despite graduation losses and a slow start, Coach Martin Clark’s Eagle boys won 13 games and for the second straight year — and for the second time in more than a decade — hosted and won a playoff game. 

And despite the transfer away of arguably the program’s best player, Coach Josh Carter’s Commodore boys’ finished .500 and also hosted and won a playoff game. 

Coach Chris Altemose’s Tigers were hit by a key late-season injury that contributed to a .500 regular-season record, while Coach Mike Stark’s young OV team scrapped and won seven times.

The most remarkable thing about the boys’ basketball season was the number of memorable games. Who would have predicted the Otters would win at Mount Abe, on a contested buzzer-beating three-pointer by freshman Conor Denis, no less? 

MEMBERS OF THE Eagle boys’ basketball team celebrate their tight home playoff win, including Ian Funke (34) and Gavin Bannister (21).
Photo courtesy of Mark Bouvier

Or that the D-III Commodores would pick up an unlikely late-season victory at MUHS? In a tie game the Tigers had what appeared to be the last shot to win it in the waning seconds, but it rolled off the rim, triggering a scramble for the rebound. VUHS senior Abram Francis came away with the ball with both fan bases roaring — almost no one heard the whistle for a loose-ball foul against the Tigers with two-tenths of a second left on the clock.

It was not a popular call for the MUHS majority, but regardless Francis made a lonely trip to the line and sank the first of two free throws. He missed the second, irrelevant one, and VUHS had won.

MUHS lost yet another home heartbreaker to Mount Abe soon afterward by three points when Eagle senior Norm Benoit grabbed two rebounds, one of a missed Eagle free throw, and hit four free throws in the final 30 seconds, offsetting Tiger Willem Berry’s late three-pointer.  

No, you really don’t know what to expect at a high school sporting event. 

Coach Koran Cousino — who had reluctantly applied to take over for her inexplicably fired Hall of Fame mentor, Connie LaRose — led the Eagle girls to a 12-win season after a 2-4 start. The highlight was probably a home win over Spaulding in rematch of the 2022 final won by Mount Abe, even if the Tide had the last laugh this winter in the quarterfinal round. Sophomore center McKenzie Griner hit the late game-winner and helped shut down Tide standout Sage MacAuley’s last-ditch attempt to answer. 

Also winning a first-round playoff game was Coach Billy Waller’s VUHS squad in D-III. The Commodores were probably better than their six-win record (they lost several times in overtime and a few other close games) and cruised in their playoff win before throwing a scare into eventual champion Windsor in a quarterfinal.

Altemose, doing one year of double duty leading both the boys’ and girls’ teams, returned only a couple players with significant varsity experience, seniors Ele Sellers and Cady Pitner. The team played hard in winning six games, and notably also provided off-court highlights with its anti-racist activities. 

The Tigers as a team first refused to travel to Enosburg when that school’s leaders would not make what the team considered acceptable accommodations to deal with Enosburg’s history of racist acts directed against MUHS athletes. And when Enosburg’s team visited MUHS, before the game captains from both teams read an anti-racist statement they co-wrote. The kids were alright, and some fans and more northerly administrators could learn from them.

Both of the MUHS hockey teams hovered around .500 for most of the season, although a midseason winning streak and then a big first-round playoff victory allowed first-year Coach PJ Lalonde’s girls’ squad to finish at 12-10. Steady defense led by senior Hana Doria and goalie Ruby Hubbell kept a small-in-numbers Tiger squad in most games, and freshman forward Erin Sears (35 goals) handled a lot of the scoring. Notably, all the Tigers improved in the course of the winter.

Coach Jordan Stearns’s boys’ hockey squad ended up right at .500 after a first-round postseason setback. When fully healthy and onboard — a rare occasion over the campaign — the team could give anyone a game. Only four seniors skated for the Tigers this season, and a step forward looks likely next season.

COMMODORE SENIOR ELI Brace, seen here on the way to a victory at an earlier home meet, dominated the 132-pound weight class at the state wrestling tournament in his home gym to win the title, and was named the tournament’s outstanding wrestler. He also earned his 100th win in the semifinal and lost only one match, none in Vermont, this winter before heading to the New England tournament.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Brace

But enough about winter. 

It’s time to think about warm weather, melting snow, and good luck for athletes who participate in tennis, Ultimate, lacrosse, track and field, softball and baseball.

And look for another championship for Panther women’s lacrosse, while keeping an eye on college baseball, softball and men’s lax teams off to promising starts. 

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