MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Union High School girls’ lacrosse team started and finished strong against visiting Burr & Burton on Monday, but in between had to stem a Bulldog rally to win, 18-11.
The 7-1 Tigers remained in first place in Division I heading into games at Champlain Valley (5-2) on Wednesday and at home vs. rival South Burlington (5-1) on Saturday at 11 a.m.
Saturday will bring a rematch of the 2011 D-I final, won by the Rebels, and an April 17 game at SBHS, won by the Tigers in overtime.
First, the Tigers had to get past the Bulldogs, who came in with a misleading 5-3 record and a four-game winning streak. All of their losses had come to D-I teams: MUHS (11-4 on April 11), SBHS and Rutland, and Burr & Burton won a rematch with Rutland.
But early on the Tigers looked like they were ready to blow out the Bulldogs, scoring five goals in the first 4:58. Senior middie Chrissy Ritter notched the first two of her game-high eight, senior middie Brandi Whittemore tallied the first of her five, and sophomore middie Emily Robinson twice set up freshman attacker Emily Kiernan.
The Bulldogs went on a 3-1 run to get back into the game. Brooke Sabol scored the first of her six goals, and after Whittemore converted the first of Ritter’s three assists, Kate Montague and Kara Corvino scored goals to make it 6-3 at 12:39.
The Tigers responded with a 5-0 run over the next six minutes. Kiernan set up Whittemore in transition, Ritter converted a free position, and then Ritter won a ground ball and threw an over-the-top pass to sophomore attacker Kiera Kirkaldy for a left-hand finish on a breakaway. Ritter capped the run with two more goals that made it 11-3 at 6:39.
But over the next 19 minutes the Bulldogs outscored the Tigers, 8-4, to make it 15-11 at 12:40 of the second half.
Senior goalie Maria Ploof, whose 11 saves preserved her streak of stopping at least 50 percent of opponents’ shots, said the Tigers took their foot off the gas with the big lead.
“It was definitely an awkward game because we played them before, and it seemed a little easier than it did today,” Ploof said. “We definitely relaxed a little too much.”
Coach Kelley Higgins said the Tigers, who have freshmen and sophomores in major roles, will learn it is easier to maintain their edge rather than regain it. Still, she noted they finished with a 3-0 run over the final 12:40.
“We came out strong and focused, and then we lost our focus a little bit,” Higgins said. “The positive thing I’d like to take away from that game is that we were able to turn it back on. It took us a little bit longer than we would have liked, but I am glad they were able to turn it back on eventually.”
Sabol and the Bulldogs deserve credit, as well. Sabol was responsible for Burr & Burton’s 9-4 edge in draw controls in the second half, and the Bulldogs won many ground balls.
Their rally started with a 2-1 edge to close the first half to make it 12-5. Tiger sophomore defender Olivia Carpenter scored on an end-to-end run, but the Bulldogs countered with goals by Sabol and Michelle Kelley.
In the second half, Ritter scored quickly to make it 13-5, but two Sabol strikes made it 13-7 at 21:18. Whittemore answered with a free position at 19:38, but more draw controls and two goals by Sabol made it 14-9 at 15:41.
Tiger freshman Sophia Peluso answered at 15:02, circling the goal and finishing strong to make it 15-9, but the Bulldogs kept coming. Goals by Hayley Sabol and Rory Halligan made it 15-11 at 12:40, and the Tigers were dropping passes as well as losing draws.
Then Ploof came up with the biggest of her 11 saves, denying a Sabol bid ticketed for the lower left corner at 9:30, and the Tigers regrouped.
At 7:14, Ritter picked up a ground ball and fired home a 20-footer. Soon after, Kiernan won a ground ball after a save on Whittemore (one of eight made by two Bulldog goalies), and Ritter netted a free position at 5:17. Ritter later added a goal assisted by Peluso, and the Tigers were home free.
Ploof said the Tigers will learn from the game and continue to improve.
“I think our team could definitely be a championship contender,” she said. “We still have little things to work on, but we fine-tune pretty well.”
Higgins also saw the game as part of the Tigers’ learning curve.
“I don’t think we’re even close to peaking yet, and I’m OK with that,” she said. “We’re getting there.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.