Spring sports report: Mount Abe Union High School
BRISTOL — The sports spring of 2022 could be a tough act to follow at Mount Abraham Union High School over the next couple of months.
But optimism was in the air for the Eagle track & field, baseball and softball teams, and the cooperative boys’ lacrosse team the school shares with Vergennes.
The track and field team offers individual title contenders and strong numbers, baseball has a new coach for a program that earned a top-four seed in Division II a year ago, softball has won three titles and made at least the semifinal round in D-II in each of the past five seasons, and the lacrosse squad is coming off its first appearance in a D-III title game.
So what to expect in 2023?
TRACK & FIELD
Coach Eva Friend’s track & field team produced the only state champion for Mount Abe in the spring of 2020: Joe Darling, then a sophomore, won the D-II long jump. Darling, back for more this spring, was also third in the triple jump and fourth in the discus, while Gavin Bannister, now a senior, finished second by small margins in both the 110- and 300-meter hurdles. Bannister added a sixth in the long jump a year ago.
Friend said those two are back and are setting their sights high, with Darling taking particular aim at both jumping events, with Friend in particular helping him work on those disciplines.
“His focus really is the long jump and triple jump,” she said. “He finished third in the triple jump, and he wants to move up in that. And of course he wants to be the D-II state champ in the long jump.”
Bannister is also motivated to move up a step from a year ago, and Assistant Coach Brent Crum will help him focus on that goal, Friend said.
“I think we all know where he wants to be this year on that podium,” she said.
Senior Dustin Lavigne has also been a steady performer for the Eagles in the hurdles, and Friend expects good things from him once he shrugs off a winter indoor season injury. Also on the boys’ side, junior Abel Atocha could break through in sprints and possibly the throwing events under the tutelage of new throwing coach Brooke Mitchell, a former Connecticut girls’ champion.
Senior Norman Benoit showed up for track for the first time after being the top Eagle boys’ cross-country runner this past fall, much to Friend’s delight.
“I’m excited to see Norman,” said Friend, who will deploy Benoit at 800 and 1,500 meters and said he could challenge for school records at those distances.
On the girls’ side, senior Ruby Jean Hall finished second by milliseconds in the 55-meter indoor hurdles during this past winter’s indoor track season.
“I want to see her on top of that podium,” Friend said. “She wants to be on top of that podium as well, and you can see it.”
Among newcomers on the girls’ side freshman Isla Underwood at 100 and 200 meters showed the most potential, at least in the early going, Friend said, and she learned the ropes this past winter in the indoor track season.
“She just worked really hard in the indoor, so I’m just really excited to see what she can do in the outdoor season,” Friend said.
Others who could make an impact are sophomore distance runners Kayla Friend and Lauren Cousino. Kayla Friend concentrated on shorter distances in the spring season a year ago, but led the Eagle runners in the cross country season and worked out on her own this past winter. Coach Friend is looking forward to their tandem work.
“I like those two together because they can push each other a little bit further,” she said. “Last year Lauren was kind of by herself.”
Isabella Shea in the 100 hurdles and 800 is also among the candidates for a breakthrough, the coach said.
Friend also hopes to build a competitive girls’ four-by-400-meter relay team, with senior Abigail Sturtevant, sophomore Hazel Stoddard, freshman Emily Fritz and Underwood among the candidates.
The Eagle girls also have pole vaulters under the tutelage of specialist Todd Goodyear, senior Olivia Devino and Stoddard, and Friend said some girls have expressed early interest in working with throwing coach Brooke Mitchell.
With a total of 31 athletes on the roster, Friend also believes other Eagles could easily end up contributing, in part because of the team’s strong chemistry and the work of all the assistant coaches, who also include Katie Burdett and strength coach Jeff Stein.
“The vibe here is just great,” she said. “We’re all working together, and I think it’s going to be a great season.”
For the first time in more than three decades the Mount Abe baseball program has a new leader. Longtime Coach Jeff Stetson stepped down after his teams won six D-II titles over the decades and won 11 games in 2022.
Taking over will be 1991 Mount Abe graduate Jason Barnard, an Eagle baseball standout who went on to play four years of college ball at Lyndon State on top of Legion and summer baseball, and after that played adult league summer ball.
“I’ve played a lot of baseball,” Barnard said.
He’s also coached Little League, Babe Ruth and a youth travel team with players from Addison and Chittenden counties, with about a decade of experience in all.
Along the way he has coached a number of his varsity players, and he liked what he saw of the group in the preseason.
“It’s a great, hardworking group of kids,” Barnard said. “I can’t say enough about the seniors on the team with leadership.”
A deep pitching staff is probably the team’s biggest strength, he said.
Seniors Gus Hill, Caleb Russell and Chance Denecker are the top three hurlers in the rotation, Barnard said, with sophomores Aricin Griffin and Tyler White ready to contribute.
“The top three guys, Gus, Caleb and Chance, are going to give us a lot of innings, quality innings,” Barnard said, while the younger pitchers just need to “learn to work hitters.”
Most of the time they will throw to versatile senior Lucas Grover behind the plate. Barnard said Grover can also fill in at third base or outfield depending who is on the mound. Freshman Colt Bagnulo will back up Grover at catcher and also Denecker at shortstop when he toes the rubber. Bagnulo is also one of several players in the second base mix.
Russell is the top first basemen, with either senior Ben Marcum or junior Tanner Castillo ready to step in when Russell pitches. Senior Reiss Hendee and junior Jamison Huizenga, who hit from different sides of the plate, could take turns at second base, and Denecker and Hill are the shortstop and third basemen and probable leadoff and cleanup hitters, respectively.
Barnard projects Griffin to be the center fielder, flanked by Castillo in left and White in right, with senior Bradley Wells filling in. Wells is likely to be in the lineup as the designated hitter on a regular basis, the coach said.
Offensively, Barnard said he doesn’t expect to rely on power hitting, with a couple exceptions; there will be smallball at Mount Abe this spring.
“We’ve been working a lot on bunting. You’ve got to put people on, and you’ve got to move them over,” he said. “We’re going to have to rely on a lot of base hits and aggressive baserunning.”
Among things Barnard was happy about is the offseason work many players logged, and their chemistry.
“They practice hard and they’re all smiles while they’re doing it,” he said.
As always, before the Eagles hit the D-II playoffs they must run the Metro Conference gauntlet; the league is loaded with top D-I teams. But Barnard expects they’ll hold their own.
“I’d anticipate we’d be a couple games over .500,” Barnard said. “The pitching is going to carry us. That’s the biggest thing.”
It’s been quite a ride for Coach Don McCormick’s Mount Abe softball program in his five years. After opening with three straight D-II titles, his Eagles reached the semifinal round each of the past two years, winning 15 games in 2022 before falling at home to Lake Division rival Enosburg’s late semifinal rally.
During the preseason, McCormick saw plenty of reasons why Mount Abe softball could have another good spring, including the team’s overall athleticism, depth, positional versatility, 10 returning veterans, and five freshmen splitting time with the JV squad who could make an impact.
“In my time as a varsity coach it’s probably the most well-rounded, athletic group that we’ve had,” he said. “I feel I can put these guys in a lot of different positions.”
And they will deploy two veterans on the mound who know their craft and throw strikes, seniors Eve McCormick and Payton Vincent, with freshman Gretchen Toy also spotting in.
“We’ve got two good pitchers, senior pitchers,” McCormick said. “We pitch to contact, keep the ball low, and make the plays behind them.”
Most of the time they will throw to senior catcher Gabrielle LaFreniere. Junior Joanna Toy can step in there, but the coach has other plans for her, and freshman Elise Parker might also don shin pads at times.
The only sure thing in the infield in the preseason was senior Lucy Parker at shortstop, with freshman Genevieve Forand backing her up. Vincent could play third base or possibly fill a vacancy at first base.
McCormick plans to move incumbent junior second baseman Madelyn Hayden to the outfield to take better advantage of her speed. Senior Dakota Larocque will get the opportunity to take over, with sophomore Abigail Parker, Forand, senior Breanne Preston and freshman Morgan Larocque also in the mix.
Vincent could remain at third base, or Forand, Abigail Parker or possibly younger Larocque could line up there. Eve McCormick will play first base when not on the mound. If Vincent doesn’t move there, one of the many versatile infielders or promising freshman Brooklyn Ryersbach could play first.
Joanna Toy and Hayden in center and left fields, respectively are sure things.
“There’s two really solid athletes that are going to be out there,” Toy and Hayden, he said. “And then I can fill in that third position with a number of kids who can go out there and I know can catch the ball.”
On that list are senior Patty McNerney, junior Sarah Heath, Preston, Ryersbach and Elise Parker.
Offensively, McCormick said the team is also versatile: It can hit, run, bunt and pound an occasional long ball.
“We can play smallball. We have kids who can run. We have so many different ways we can play this year,” he said.
As far as an outlook, McCormick said expectations haven’t changed.
“In the years I’ve coached here we’ve never really had lower than a two (seed),” McCormick said, and then pointed to the team’s home field. “The key to our season is winning as many games as we can, getting as high a seed as we can, and playing our games right there until we get to Castleton.”
Coach Ed Cook’s Mt. Abe-VUHS cooperative boys’ lacrosse team won just five games in 2022, but two of those victories came in the D-III quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, propelling the Eagles to their first appearance in a lacrosse final. There, they fell to a more experienced Montpelier squad.
Many players return from the team that made that dramatic postseason run a year ago, and Cook hopes for more of the same.
“I graduated some seniors on defense, but my whole offense is back,” Cook said. “We’re going to make a run the next couple years. I’m pretty confident.”
Cook believes even the Eagles’ rebuilt defense should sort itself out, with the help of hard work and the more experienced midfielders who also play in the back.
“That’s a lot of focus right now, our defense,” Cook said.
The Eagles will rely on junior long-stick middie Jake Kadar, junior short-stick defensive middie Jamison Couture, and the rest of the team’s talented midfield to work with the back line to help stop other teams’ transition and settled offenses. Freshman Cooper Cook will also see time as a long-stick middie, and sophomore Jonah Howell could fill in at short-stick defensive middie.
Cook expects the three of the group of juniors Olin Kidder, Benjamin McDonald, Jordan Schroeder and Toby Tillotson to start on low defense, with the fourth seeing plenty of time and junior Connor Kelly also in the mix. That unit should gel as it gains experience, he said.
“I’ve got some good athletes, and I’m pretty excited we can do some things,” Cook said about his back-line group.
Junior Walker Forand volunteered this past fall to fill a void in the goal — “He came out of nowhere,” Cook said — and has worked hard to become adept at the demanding job.
He is also pleased with the quality of his midfield crew.
“My midfield, I can put six guys on the field who can all move the ball and are all a threat to score,” Cook said.
Juniors Sawyer Leonard and Samuel Mangini and sophomore Andrew Nolan will be the top midfield unit, with sophomores Spencer Gebo and Chase Atkins, junior Finley Kaeck, Howell, and sophomore faceoff specialist Lorenzo Atocha all candidates for the second line.
Meanwhile, the starting attacking trio of seniors Henry Anderson, who assuming he maintains good health this year, should reach 100 career goals, and Sawyer Shepard and junior Noah Ladeau is entering its third year of playing as a unit.
“We’re going to surprise some teams with our offense this year,” Cook said.
In all, he expects the Eagles to have things pretty well sorted by the end of the season.
“We’re going to take some lumps early,” Cook said. “But by the time we get into our league schedule and playoffs we’re going to be in good shape.”
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