The local high school sports year began the same way it always does in August, with students sweating on steamy fields.
On Saturday, it ended the way athletes, parents and fans dream about: Vergennes pitcher Devin Hayes struck out the final Missisquoi batter in the Division II final and raised his arms in triumph. The stands erupted in cheers, and his teammates raced to the mound and buried him in a mound of blue and gray uniforms.
In between for the local teams came endless practices and boring bus rides to Brattleboro, Swanton and St. Johnsbury; wins, losses and draws; basketball games in packed gyms with cheering, chanting crowds; dramatic wrestling matches in airless rooms and 1-1 soccer games on rainy, windswept, 40-degree days, both watched only by family members and sweethearts; team breakfasts, dinners and private jokes; and, as always, injuries.
The most painful blows always come to seniors. I spoke to one junior, VUHS softball catcher Cat Chaput, whose season-ending thumb injury was a setback for her team. Cat was obviously disappointed, but did say, “At least I’ll be back next year.”
The same can’t be said for senior athletes like Mount Abraham’s Sara Sayles, Middlebury’s Emily Anderson or Commodore Steven Sickles.
Sayles, a three-year starting guard on the Eagle girls’ basketball team, hurt a knee late in the regular season and sat out almost all the playoffs. She played on it in the D-II final, but clearly wasn’t her usual relentless self.
Anderson, a former D-II cross-country champion and a four-year standout on the Tiger cross-country and track teams, lost the chance to compete in her last few spring meets, including the state championship, after developing a medical problem in a leg.
Sickles, a two-year starter on defense for the VUHS boys’ lacrosse team, sat on the sidelines for most of the spring after tearing up a knee early in the season.
Life isn’t fair. Something was lost for these three and other good citizens who got hurt, and it can’t be gotten back.
But we can hope that the luck will even out for them, and wish them the best.
In looking back over the past 10 months for the local high school teams, luck didn’t quite even out in finals. Six teams from local schools played in championship games, and four lost: MUHS football, MUHS girls’ lacrosse, Mount Abe girls’ basketball and VUHS boys’ basketball.
Really, though, all four could fairly be called underdogs, and all excelled to get as far as they did.
Two groups walked off with trophies. One, the VUHS baseball team, of course, won in dramatic fashion as a No. 2 seed against an upset-minded No. 13 seed trying to make history. The fact that five members of the VUHS team had lost in that basketball final made the Commodores’ rally all the sweeter.
And the other team to play in a final and win was the MUHS field hockey team, which stunned heavily favored South Burlington, 1-0. As long as we’re talking about memories, maybe the eight members of the MUHS lacrosse team that lost last week will also remember they played on the field hockey team that stunned the Rebels last fall.
Those teams do not complete the list of local champions.
VUHS senior Geoffrey Grant won the 170-pound wrestling title, Orwell’s Chelsea Montello won three D-II track events for the Fair Haven girls’ team, there were several Orwell athletes on the D-II champion Slater football team, VUHS junior Jon Welch hurdled his way to two D-II track gold medals, MUHS sophomore Max Moulton won the D-II 800-meter race, senior Stuart Guertin capped a fine four-year career by winning the D-II 3,000, and the MUHS girls’ Nordic team, with senior Britta Clark posting two individual victories, claimed the D-II crown.
But most athletes will not remember the season for titles. Only a lucky few every year finish as champions. Others, like the Otter Valley field hockey and baseball teams, for example, do well to exceed expectations. Others, like the Mount Abe girls’ soccer team, show an unusual ability to win close games. Still others, like the MUHS girls’ soccer or boys’ lacrosse teams, didn’t have winning seasons, but improved the quality of their play dramatically. Many teams, not just champions, have chemistry and play to the best of their abilities.
What many will also remember might be listening to music or talking nonsense on the bus rides, or one or two unexpected wins, or a couple good plays, or the friendships made that could last years or even a lifetime.
One story summed up many of these themes. One team that did not meet preseason expectations was the VUHS girls’ soccer team. A series of injuries derailed a promising season. But the Commodores at last got reasonably healthy in their final regular season games and started playing better. They knocked off a higher seed in a first-round road playoff game, and thanks to another upset elsewhere they found out they would host a D-II quarterfinal.
Then they woke up the next morning and learned that their field had been vandalized. Huge chunks of turf had been ripped up. School officials worked hard to prepare the surface to make it playable, and the girls’ friends on the boys’ soccer team spent a chilly night sleeping in tents next to the field in case the cowards tried again.
A huge crowd showed up to root for the Commodores in the quarterfinal, and they won in a dramatic penalty kick shootout to advance to the semifinal round. Their friends ran on the field and embraced them.
No, I can’t report the team kept winning. But when the cheers fade, the memories of that day will live on.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]