By ANDY KIRKALDY
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Union High School girls’ lacrosse team on Tuesday rode a big first half to its third straight one-sided win, 12-4, over visiting Essex.
Six Tigers scored as MUHS (3-1) romped to a 9-2 lead at the break, with assists on six of the goals. Junior attackers Emma McDowell, who finished with four goals and an assist, and Shelby Laframboise, with two goals and three assists, led the MUHS assault.
Seven Tigers in all scored, including senior midfielder and tri-captain Joey Kelley (two goals, one assist). Kelley noted nine Tigers scored in their previous win and said offensive balance makes MUHS a dangerous opponent.
“Having so many scoring threats really takes the pressure off us in a way. Everyone’s really unselfish, and we have a good time playing together,” Kelley said. “You see it after the goals. Everyone’s just as happy as if they’d scored.”
On Tuesday, the Tigers also took a step forward at midfield, especially in transitioning up the field into the attack. Defenders Kayla Whittemore, Kaitlyn Kirkaldy and Rachel Scholten found middies Liz Kelley, Katie Ritter, Abby Scholten and Joey Kelley quickly, and they just as quickly found each other and their teammates with purposeful ball movement.
Coach Harriette Brainard said she had made short passing a point of emphasis in the one practice the team had after vacation and before Tuesday’s game.
“We were doing a lot of good transitions in the middle of the field,” Brainard said. “I had really been stressing small passes, and they really started doing that.”
And then there’s the defense. Whittemore and Kirkaldy are junior second-year starters, while Rachel Scholten is a sophomore first-year starter. In goal, junior Alex Sears is a first-year starter. And Scholten and Sears are replacing athletes who earned NCAA Division I scholarships in the sport.
Yet after four games, the Tigers have allowed fewer than six goals per game, about the same as last year’s state championship team. Kirkaldy said the unit has already gelled.
“It’s going really well. Alex is playing great, making ridiculous saves. Rachel’s playing great, so I’m feeling really good about our low defense,” Kirkaldy said. “We’re making up for what we don’t have from last year.”
Brainard said most of her midfielders and defenders either started or saw major minutes a year ago, but that the key steps forward she saw taken on Tuesday were by McDowell and Laframboise (both of whom are also first-year starters), and by Sears, who tallied eight saves.
“A key thing that’s happening is a couple people are getting more confident,” she said.
The Tigers wasted little time getting rolling on Tuesday: Joey Kelley fed Laframboise for the game’s first goal 45 seconds in. Hornet Christina Whalen made it 1-1 at 23:40 after a rare first-half Tiger turnover, but the Tigers ran off the next three goals in six minutes. Ritter set up senior middie Addie Cleveland out front, and Joey Kelley and McDowell each curled from behind the net and beat Hornet goalie Chelsea Anderson (five saves).
Hornet Meredith Reagan picked up a ground ball out in front of Sears and converted at 13:04, but that was all Essex could muster in the half.
The Tigers and McDowell responded quickly to that goal: Laframboise set up McDowell at 12:24, and McDowell fed junior middie Dea Vaczy out front at 11:35 to make it 6-2.
At 10:31 McDowell made it 7-2 on a solo run. Three minutes later, Laframboise made a terrific cut and netted a Vaczy feed.
At 6:16, Liz Kelley closed out the first-half scoring by netting a Laframboise pass at 6:16 to make it 9-2. That play finished a fast break triggered when Ritter and Kirkaldy double-teamed a Hornet on the right-sideline and stripped the ball.
The Tigers added goals by McDowell, Joey Kelley and Abby Scholten in the second half, but were not as crisp.
“We had a big lead, and the girls just got sloppy and a little tired, and that happens,” Brainard said.
The Tigers lost six starters from last year’s title team, but see no reason they cannot succeed again.
“A lot of people have really stepped up to their roles with confidence,” Joey Kelley said. “Everyone shares the ball really well, and we’re just meshing.”
Kirkaldy said the team has both chemistry and talent.
“We don’t have any negative attitudes. It’s all positive,” she said. “Everybody’s playing together, and we had so many young players that were just ready to step up.”
In short, Kelley said, the Tigers are aiming high.
“We can be state champions again,” she said. “I believe it, and I think everyone else does, too.”