CASTLETON — With one ailing starting defender watching from the stands and a four-year starter spending the second half on crutches, the top-seeded Middlebury Union High School girls’ lacrosse team couldn’t hold a late lead against No. 2 South Burlington on Friday and lost, 12-10, in what was an emotional Division I final for the Tigers.
First-year coach Kelley Higgins’ Tigers finished at 13-3 despite returning only four fulltime starters and six athletes with significant varsity experience, fielding an entirely new defense, and deploying a lineup that typically featured three freshmen.
And they almost defeated a 14-2 South Burlington team despite a late-season loss to illness of junior defender Maya Scaramucci and a late first-half injury to standout senior midfielder Liz Kelley.
MUHS held a 10-8 lead with 10:07 to go and was still up by 10-9 with less than 3:00 left, but Rebel Allie Flaherty scored at 2:25 and 2:06 to put the Rebels ahead for good, and Alyssa Guyette tacked on an insurance goal at 0:32.
The Tigers gathered around Scaramucci to hug her before the game, and afterward embraced Kelley. Kelley scored twice in the first half before being injured after being bumped by a knot of defenders. She came up hobbling and frustrated and spent the rest of the game with an ice pack covering a knee.
The Tigers depth was already challenged without Scaramucci. But Kelley plays a key role on defense, offense and in the Tigers’ transition game. And she is one of the five Tigers assigned to win draws. With her in the lineup in the first half, each team won seven draws. In the second half, the Rebels won eight of 10 as they dominated possession.
Higgins said the Tigers handled the adversity as well as possible on Friday, just as they had earlier this spring when other injuries struck. But the loss of Kelley might have been too much, despite four goals and two assists on Friday from senior middie Katie Ritter and four goals from junior Chrissy Ritter.
“We called ourselves Team Bring It, because we had so many setbacks along the way throughout the season,” Higgins said. “I’m proud of them for getting here, and I’m proud of how they played today.”
A back-and-forth first half ended with MUHS up, 7-6. The Tigers had an edge in play with their lineup intact and earned a 16-11 margin in shots on goal.
Katie Ritter opened the scoring in the first minute, but goals by Allie Flaherty and Anne-Marie Farmer — each finished with four for the Rebels — put SB on top.
Kelley converted a Katie Ritter feed to tie it at 2-2 at 20:42, but SB retook the lead with two goals, the second one by Farmer at 19:14.
Then the Tigers began to come on, forcing SB goalie Ashley McDonald (11 saves) to make three of her nine first half saves in the next few minutes. At 13:29, Katie Ritter cashed in a feed from junior middie Brandi Whittemore, but the Rebels quickly responded with a Molly Higgins goal set up by Flaherty.
But the Tigers kept coming. Chrissy Ritter curled from behind to make it 4-5, and Katie Ritter set up Kelley’s second goal to tie the game. Flaherty scored at 4:59, but a minute later freshman attacker Kiera Kirkaldy assisted Katie Ritter out front and it was 6-6. At 3:21, Chrissy Ritter tossed in a free position, and the Tigers led.
A minute later, Kelley had to drag herself off the field as play went on. Tiger junior goalie Maria Ploof gained possession shortly afterward and stalled the rest of the half, but it was soon clear Kelley would not return.
Farmer opened the second half by converting a free position, and it was 7-7. Then Ploof (15 saves) became the story of the game, stopping 10 second-half shots, many from close range despite the best efforts of Tiger defenders Angelica Swinhart, Eva Pratt and Olivia Carpenter, who were under constant pressure.
Many of her stops also came on free-position shots awarded by the officials: Ploof stopped seven of nine free positions in the second half, including point-blank kick saves on Farmer and Flaherty.
Meanwhile, the Tigers took advantage of their few opportunities. Katie Ritter went solo at 21:07 to make it 8-7, and after Farmer finally got a free position past Ploof at 14:16, Chrissy Ritter scored twice.
At 13:50, she converted one of the two MUHS free positions in the second half, and at 10:07 she bolted through a knot of defenders and found the upper right corner to make it 10-8.
Ploof then made five straight saves before the Tigers got the ball back. At that point, Higgins tried to call for a stall, but the noise washing over the field prevented her from making the point to her team.
“We were screaming ‘Tiger,’ which is our stall, but nobody could hear us because of the fans and everything. So that message didn’t get to the team,” she said. “I think that could have made a difference in the game if I could have got word to them to stall.”
Instead, McDonald made a save. Then Flaherty scored to make it 10-10, the Rebels won the draw, Flaherty scored again, and the Rebels won the draw again with two minutes to go. The Tigers got the ball back one more time, but turned it over and Guyette scored on the break to seal the win.
Three seniors played their last games for MUHS on Friday: Swinhart; Kelley, an all-state player and member of the 2008 championship team as a freshman; and Katie Ritter, an all-state player and member of the 2008 title team who scored nearly 200 goals in her career.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]