BURLINGTON — The Mount Abraham Union High School field hockey team on Saturday punctuated an emotional season with an exclamation point, a convincing, 2-1 victory over previously undefeated and top-seeded Rice in the Division II final at the University of Vermont.
The No. 3 Eagles improved to 10-3-3 by allowing only one shot on goal, which went in with seconds to go to create the final score.
By then, Coach Mary Stetson and the Eagles on the sideline were already hugging, and Mount Abe fans were chanting, “I think that we will win!” in the bleachers on the other side of the artificial turf surface to which the Eagles adapted so well.
All game the Eagles transitioned up the field crisply with sharp passing, moving purposefully off the ball and linking up well with each other.
Stetson said that was no accident. Many of the team members practiced in the offseason on the similar Middlebury College turf, and the Eagles prepared for Saturday by emphasizing ball control in their practices.
“We talked about playing a short passing game on this surface. That’s what we needed to do,” Stetson said.
But Rice (13-1-2) and unfamiliar turf were not the Eagles’ biggest hurdles. As senior tri-captain Sam Reiss said after the game, they faced “a huge tragedy this season” — junior teammate Olivia Scott took her own life early in October.
One game was canceled, and then Mount Abe carried on. When the Eagles scored their first goal in their next game, all raised the index finger of each hand in the air in a tribute to Scott’s No. 11. The Eagles never lost again, going 4-0-2 including their playoff run.
“We went out playing every game for Olive and doing everything we could to make her proud, because we knew she loved field hockey, and this was her happiest place,” Reiss said. “So we decided we would win every game we could for her. We knew she was here with us.”
On Saturday, the Eagles took charge early, earning two penalty corners in the fifth minute, and Rice goalie Maura Sheridan turned aside a deflected shot.
That turned out to be her only save, as the Rice defenders stood tall in and near their circle: The Eagles dominated possession — with Reiss, Madi Wood, Sara Cousino and Danielle Bachand all playing well at midfield — but had trouble finding shooting room near Sheridan despite hard work by forwards Sam Driscoll, Hailey Sayles, Gabby Schlein, Kennady Roy and Bailey Sherwin.
In the 15th minute, Wood shot on goal on one of the 10 Eagle penalty corners (to just two for Rice), but Rice defender Jane Dowling knocked it away.
Finally, Driscoll put the Eagles on top. Wood broke up a clear, and the ball went to Bachand, who relayed it into the circle. The ball bounced off a defender’s stick to Driscoll near the stroke line, and she rolled it inside the left post with 14.7 seconds left in the half.
In the second half, Rice generated brief momentum after an early timeout, but the Mount Abe defense refused to allow the Green Knights a look on goalie Danielle Morris. Gabby Ryan and Anna Thompson in the middle, Melinda Lathrop on the left, and the tag team of Jen Gordon and Ellie Gevry on the right all played well.
Ryan credited the midfielders for pressuring the Green Knights and not allowing good serves into the circle, while Reiss said when Rice did attack the Eagle defenders stopped or contained them to allow Mount Abe to regroup.
“Our defense, they did whatever they could to slow them down … and that allowed the rest of us to recover,” Reiss said.
The combination clearly prevented Rice from generating any offensive consistency.
“I was very proud of our defense … and our midfield,” Ryan said. “It (the ball) rarely got past our 25.”
With 10 minutes to go, the Eagles finally cashed in on a penalty corner after going 0-for-17 in their semifinal win over Harwood on Wednesday and failing to convert their first nine on Saturday. The play broke down, but the ball went to Reiss on the right side, and she wisely decided to abandon the short-passing approach and drilled the ball inside the left post.
“I just took a couple of steps … and whaled on it, and it went into the corner,” she said.
Against Harwood in the semifinal at Middlebury College, Schlein got the game’s only goal on a feed from Driscoll, and the Eagles did not allow the Highlanders a shot on goal.
With 13.5 seconds left, Rice’s Lucy Stillman rapped a feed from the left side into the lower left corner to break Eagle opponents’ shot-less and scoreless streaks, but by then the Eagle celebration had already begun.
“I felt we played our best today,” Reiss said. “It’s phenomenal.”
Stetson said, as always, the Eagles challenging Metro Conference schedule prepared them for their postseason run.
But something else made this Eagle group the first to win since 2006 and the one to claim the program’s seventh championship,” Stetson said.
“I learned a lot about persistence from this team. They went through a lot,” she said. “I’m just glad it had a storybook ending for them.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]