RUTLAND – In the end, after two 10-0 teams clashed in Saturday’s Division I football final at Rutland High School, there was no doubt which was better.
No. 1 Middlebury Union High School shut down No. St. Johnsbury’s high-powered attack, rolled up 322 yards of offense to 190 yards for the Hilltoppers, claimed its 22nd straight victory, and, most importantly, earned its second consecutive title by outscoring St. J, 28-7.
In what was a highly anticipated showdown between the two programs that had easily handled all comers, the Tigers had erased all doubt.
“I think it’s a great way to end the year, with a statement that we really are the best,” said senior safety and tri-captain Connor Quinn.
All fall, the Tigers have had their second straight 11-0 season as a goal, but have never talked about it, instead following the football mantra: One Game At A Time.
Now, said, senior tri-captain and quarterback Austin Robinson, the Tigers can enjoy the reward of that focus.
“We finally got it done and can look back on it and we can finally say we had a great season,” said Robinson, who ran for two scores and threw for a third. “22-0. That’s special. We knew it was special the whole time.”
After the game, the Tigers sang to thank their fans for their support (video by Trent Campbell and Andy Kirkaldy)
Afterward, Coach Dennis Smith, the leader of the game-by-game approach, gave the Tigers the green light to finally look at the big picture.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind, but we never talk about it,” Smith said. “We’ll talk about it now.”
But first came the Hilltoppers, who racked up 40 points vs. Hartford in the quarterfinals and then scored four touchdowns in their first five possessions in a 26-6 win vs. Essex in a semifinal. In both games, St. J. quarterback Colton Hudson threw early and often and ran effectively.
Not on Saturday, although he did run for 41 yards on seven carries in the first half — before the Tigers held him to 1 yard on five attempts in the second half. Hudson completed just eight for 20 passes for 105 yards for one score and two interceptions.
Quinn said the coaches told the Tiger defensive backs they could cover the St. J receivers man-to-man, and prepared them well.
“We just had the athletes in the secondary. We knew we were capable of doing it,” Quinn said. “We just focused on the fundamentals all week. If you take care of the mental side of the game, the physical becomes a lot easier.”
Robinson added another factor. The Tiger defensive linemen, particularly ends Sam Holmes and Justin Stone, used their quickness against the bigger Hilltoppers to make Hudson uncomfortable in the pocket.
“We got a good pass rush going,” Robinson said.
MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School senior quarterback Austin Robinson, above, slips away from St. Johnsbury's Eli Wendell Saturday in Rutland. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
And the Hilltoppers rushed for just 85 yards on 25 carries, as nose guard Nick Beauchamp, tackle James Ploof and linebackers Matt Dunton and Nathan Lalonde were among those who excelled.
“We did a really great job up front, James Ploof, our defensive tackles, they played amazing,” Robinson said.
On offense, the Tigers did not break many big plays, although Stone at fullback (16 carries, 111 yards) had runs of 48 and 27 yards and Robinson (23 attempts, 85 yards) converted several key first downs.
Especially in the second half, the Tigers moved steadily, however.
“They have a lot of athletes. We weren’t just going to blow them away with our speed,” Robinson said. “But eventually we started methodically moving the ball running our core plays.”
The Tigers also did so on their first possession, which started on the 50 after Robinson picked off Hudson. Ten plays later, the longest of which were Stone runs for 11 and 6 yards, Robinson scored from 16 yards out. Lalonde’s extra point made it 7-0.
Late in the second quarter, St. J moved 65 yards to tie the game. After Hudson scrambled for 16 yards to the Tiger 26, he lofted a ball to the end zone into tight coverage, and Ronnie Gobin came down with the ball. The kick made it 7-7 at 4:18.
The Tigers answered, moving 58 yards to make it 13-7. Stone’s 48-yard run to the Hilltopper 7 was the big play, and two plays later Robinson danced around the left side and inside the pylon.
The second half opened with the decisive drive. The Tigers received, and a good kickoff pinned them on their 8. Twenty plays and 7:14 later, it was 19-7.
The drive contained several key moments: Robinson hit Ian Gill for 14 yards on third-and-six from the 13, Robinson ran for six yards on third-and-six, Stone ran for five on third-and-three, and Robinson ran for six on third-and-five.
A holding penalty hurt, and eventually the Tigers faced fourth and 21 from the Hilltopper 25. No matter: Robinson found Cullen Hathaway open down the middle in the end zone for a leaping grab, and then on a fake kick hit Bobby Ritter for the two point conversion. It was 21-7 at 6:16 of the third.
“I felt that was a great statement,” Smith said. “Last weekend was the first time we went more than 10 plays on a drive. It was twice that. It was wonderful. I loved it.”
The Hilltoppers went three-and-out twice, sandwiched around an unproductive Tiger possession, and then the Tigers took over on their own 41 for their first possession of the fourth quarter. Six plays later — three Robinson runs and three Stone runs, one for 27 yards — it was 28-7, with Stone covering the final nine yards and Lalonde kicking the extra point.
TIGER SENIOR CAPTAINS Bobby Ritter, left, Austin Robinson and Connor Quinn collect the Division I state championship trophy. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Hudson completed a couple passes, but then Quinn picked him off midway through the quarter to end all Hilltopper hopes.
Afterward, the Tigers and their coach talked about what had created this spectacular two-year run.
Smith said, of course, the team is blessed with speed and athleticism, and this year’s team benefitted from many two-year starters and new starters who saw valuable time last fall. And then, he said, there was leadership and grit.
“You had great leaders last year that started getting the ball rolling, and these guys just took that mold and went to the next level with it,” Smith said. “And they are tough. They are tougher than I would think they are, you know? Because usually good fast athletes, they’re, ehh. Not these guys. They’re willing to stick their noses in there.”
And many of the Tigers have been playing not only together as high school teammates, but also their time with each other dates back to flag football.
Quinn said the Tigers are close.
“The chemistry is incredible on the team. Everybody knows each other. Everybody knew each other last year. We had some new pieces come in. The guys fit right in,” he said. “By the end of the year we were really a family, and there’s nothing better than playing with your family alongside you.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]