MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Union High School football coach Dennis Smith said he remembered a game like his team’s 20-14 overtime win over visiting Otter Valley Friday — when he was a high school freshman in 1983.
OV coach Dennis Perry said of the wind-swept, rain-soaked battle that, “It was just a couple of big old heavyweights going at it in a slugfest, and they were the last man standing.”
The game included two botched point-blank field goals, a deflected pass caught for a two-point conversion, a game-clinching interception by the same athlete who had been burned for the game-tying touchdown pass, a touchdown scored three seconds before halftime, 204 yards of offense for OV and 200 for MUHS, and three possession changes in the final 38 seconds of regulation.
Afterward, Tiger co-captain Ryan Foley could only shake his head — and praise the Otters.
“We’ve played in close games, before, obviously, but nothing like this one,” said Foley, whose five-yard OT touchdown run proved to be the difference. “We’re used to the mud, but the momentum shifts? And that’s a strong team right there.”
The win sent the Tigers (7-2 overall, 5-2 in Division II) to the playoffs as the No. 4 seed. They will visit No. 1 Colchester (9-0) this weekend at a time to be announced. Mount Mansfield (7-2, 6-1) and Champlain Valley (8-1, 6-1) will meet in the other semifinal.
Smith’s roster includes just nine seniors, but the Tigers have made their first year dropping down from D-I more than a rebuilding season.
“I’m excited for them, because we’re young,” Smith said. “We’ve matured throughout the year, and everybody on this team has gotten progressively better at all phases of the game. They come to practice and they have fun, but they work hard.”
Perry’s Otters (4-5 overall, 3-4 in D-II) overcame adversity — a 7-6 loss to CVU and their controversial, 20-16 setback to Mount Mansfield — to win three straight games before Friday.
MUHS dashed their playoff hopes, but Perry was proud of how the Otters responded to those earlier losses and how they devoted themselves to the sport.
“This team here is probably the greatest team I’ve ever coached as far as rewards ... We’ve got some real good football players, don’t get me wrong, but there’s some that overachieved and played really good football for us, and that’s rewarding,” he said. “Right now I’m heartbroken because we lost this game. But once the smoke clears I’m going to look back and say, ‘That was one hell of a football team.’ They gave us everything all season long. I can’t be prouder.’”
Wind and rain dictated much of the first half action. The Tigers had both at their backs in the first quarter, and won the field position battle. With 4:33 to go, they took over at the OV 38.
Two runs by Kaden Odell (12 carries, 55 yards) and one by quarterback Brendan Burrell put the Tigers on the 19. A pass interference call moved the ball to the 10, and on second down Burrell found Devin Bradford in the end zone to make it 6-0. A bad snap — one of many by both teams in the tough conditions — ruined the kick.
In the second quarter, OV held the Tigers to 14 yards. The Tigers had good field position for their first drive, but big hits by Colby Frazier on third down and tackling machine Andrew Piper on fourth-and-one stopped the Tigers on the OV 35.
Then the Otters began to move. Thousand-yard rusher Pete Bautista was limited to 40 yards on 15 carries overall, but ran for 27 yards in the period. OV reached the Tiger 26 on their first march, but the Tigers held on to an interception by Jerry Hoffman at the MUHS five.
The Otters got the ball back at the Tiger 37, and on fourth and two from the 29, OV quarterback Zakk Williams raced to the one on a keeper. The Tigers stopped two plays, and OV had time for just one more at 0:08. Williams pitched the ball to Bautista wide left, and he went in untouched. Garrett Gregorek’s kick gave OV a 7-6 lead at the half.
On OV’s first second-half possession, Odell picked off a pass and returned it 25 yards for a TD. The Tigers went for two, and Frazier batted away Burrell’s pass — about 15 feet to Tiger halfback Bryan Ashley-Selleck, who snared it to put the Tigers ahead, 14-7.
OV moved the ball, but Burrell picked off Williams at the Tiger 35, and the Tigers drove to the OV five behind Foley (nine carries, 60 yards overall) and a 28-yard Burrell-to-Bradford toss from the OV 33 on fourth-and-nine. But OV senior Joey Massores blocked Tyler Malloy’s field goal attempt as the fourth quarter opened.
OV took over at its own 22 at 6:06 and moved 78 yards to tie the score. Sophomore Lance Schu ran five times for 36 yards on the march, and Williams (seven for 15 for 73 yards) completed passes to Casey Babcock for 16 yards and to Nate Fitzgerald from 25 yards out for the TD on a fourth-and-four play. Gregorek’s kick made it 14-14 at 1:26.
The Tigers moved to the OV 36, but the Otters held, and took over with 38 seconds left on the clock. Foley picked off Williams on the next play, and returned it to the OV 37. With Burrell sidelined by cramps, Hoffman completed passes to Foley and Bradford, and a penalty moved the ball to the OV six at 0:08. But another bad snap foiled a field goal, and it was on to OT.
The Tigers went first in OT, in which both teams start at the 10 and try to score. An offsides penalty put MUHS on the five, and Foley bolted in on a counter play. Yet another bad snap gave OV a golden chance for the win.
Williams rolled right and fired into the end zone, but the ball sailed to Tiger Marshall Hastings — who had lost coverage on Fitzgerald’s TD moments before. Hastings made no mistake this time, and the Tigers celebrated a playoff berth that Foley said he couldn’t have predicted.
“To tell you the truth. I had no clue. I knew the sophomore class ... is very talented, strong, athletic and very smart,” he said. “But there’s just so many young guys.”
Perry said this year’s Otters have set the bar for the future after going “toe-to-toe” with the Tigers.
“We could have been easily coming to this game with one loss, and this game went to overtime,” Perry said. “There’s a good nucleus coming back. I think this team took us to the Division II level, and now we’re in a position to contend every year.”