CASTLETON – By any measure, the Middlebury Union High School football team had a great season after returning to Division I this fall.
But the No. 3 Tigers didn’t have a great day in Saturday’s Division I final at Castleton State College, when they were hampered by a rash of injuries and handcuffed by undefeated No. 1 Hartford, 42-6.
The 9-2 Tigers entered the game already shorthanded – senior quarterback Dillon Robinson and senior offensive lineman Tyler Malloy were hurt the week before in their 18-7 semifinal win over No. 2 BFA-St. Albans.
And against the 11-0 Hurricanes, who won their fourth D-I crown in the past five years and second straight in convincing fashion, another handful of Tigers hobbled off.
MUHS coach Dennis Smith said the Tigers gave everything they had, but it just wasn’t enough on Saturday, especially when the Hurricanes pulled away in the second half with 28 unanswered points.
“That’s an explosive Hartford team, and we had kids already hurt coming into here, and we got more kids banged up. It was a game of attrition and we just didn’t have enough to keep with them,” Smith said. “Heck, I had a JV kid playing center the whole second half of the game for me. We just kept throwing guys out there and putting guys in positions they weren’t even really accustomed to. But my kids kept fighting and they kept their heads up, and that’s all I can ask.”
The Tigers’ troubles started early, when a fumble on their opening drive set up the Hurricanes on the Tiger 34. Seven plays later, Josh Claflin scored from the 5, and the first of six Dylan Rice kicks made it 7-0, Hartford, with 4:57 gone.
An exchange of turnovers put the Tigers at midfield, but they went three-and-out. Hartford then moved 78 yards to make it 14-0 at 1:38. The big plays were a 25-yard run by Claflin on which a penalty added 15 yards, and a 37-yard TD pass from Hartford QB Tucker Stone to Travis Wilson on third-and-12.
Then the Tigers struck. On the kickoff return Mitchell Clarke handed the ball to Marshall Hastings at the Tiger 21, and Hastings bolted 79 yards down the right sideline, blowing past the last defender at the Hartford 25 to the end zone. The kick missed, and it was 14-6 at 1:27.
Hartford responded with Troy Bell’s long kickoff return to the Tiger 43 and a march to a first-and-goal at the Tiger 7. On third down the Tigers stopped a Stone sneak from the 1, and after one of many Hartford penalties, the Hurricanes went for it from the 6. But a big hit from linebacker Jesse Otis jarred a pass loose from Wilson and the Tigers took over.
Their best drive of the half — two first downs – gave the Tigers some territory, and after a punt they finally held the Hurricanes. A three-yard Hartford punt gave them the ball on the Hartford 39, but they failed to move and fumbled.
Stone then tossed a bomb to Bell to set up a 26-yard Price field goal attempt as time wound down, but it missed to end the half at 14-6.
Hartford then received the second-half kickoff. Another penalty — Hartford was flagged 13 times for 93 yards — made it second and 16 from their 45. Then Bell (11 carries, 111 yards) ran wide right and raced untouched down the sideline to make it 21-6 at 9:53 of the third.
The Tigers then went three-and-out on their next two possessions as their depleted offensive line could neither open running lanes or protect junior quarterback Tyler Provencher when he tried to throw.
“They were just very aggressive defensively, and we just couldn’t stop the penetration,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes scored on their next two possessions to put the game out of reach. Miles Latham (18 carries, 104 yards) capped a 46-yard drive at 4:33 of the third with a six-yard run, and he ended a 38-yard march at 11:38 of the fourth with a two-yard plunge.
For some reason, the Hurricanes felt it necessary to leave their starters in for the remainder of the game against the depleted Tiger roster. They added their final score on Stone’s 36-yard interception return with 1:48 to go.
MUHS threatened once, when Provencher hit Patrick Foley on a 54-yard catch-and-run play that put the Tigers on the Hartford 11 with nine minutes to go, but a sack ended that scoring bid.
Hartford outgained the Tigers, 444-88 yards overall and 362-22 on the ground. Provencher rushed 10 times for 25 yards, while Hastings was held to 18 yards on 11 carries; other rushers lost yards.
Leading the Tiger defense were Clarke, with eight solo tackles and five assists; Foley, five solos and three assists; and Otis and Sam Smith, four solos and three assists apiece, according to statistics provided by Castleton State.
A number of seniors will graduate for MUHS: Robinson, Hastings, Seth Hobbs, Otis, Foley, Jordan Connor, Dylan Lanpher, Wren Hobbs, Austin Quesnel, Ramsey Bronson, Joey Zeno, Malloy and Sean MacCallum.
As well as Robinson and Malloy missing games this season, Bronson, who started on the offensive line early on, and junior Taylor Patterson were injured in a devastating midseason car accident (in which they were not at fault) and missed the rest of the campaign. Among others who were hurt, Wren Hobbs also missed the season with an injury.
Smith said the Tigers overcame an incredible amount of adversity to enjoy a remarkable season against the state’s toughest competition.
“We started out the first game with seven kids missing because of anything and everything. We have not had the total team on the field once this year because of injuries, because of grades, because of you name it, accidents, it’s been there,” Smith said.
“And every week they just shake it off and we patch the boat again and we get the guys back in and we start rowing the boat back down the river again for the next game. And they fought every week. That’s all I ever want.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.