MIDDLEBURY — After the Middlebury Union High School team opened on Dec. 2 with a 3-0 loss to Montpelier, co-coach Tim Howlett was not upset. The Tigers had an edge in shots on goal, and Howlett thought the team he heads with co-coach Wendy Leeds had played hard and well.
“That kind of effort will win us a lot of games this year,” Howlett wrote in an email.
The Tigers — a team that won three games last winter and finished 0-20 the year before — have not lost since.
On Saturday, the Tigers moved to 4-1 by blitzing visiting Woodstock, 7-0, a game in which only 52 saves by outstanding Wasp goalie Emily Koetsier prevented a more lopsided result. On Wednesday, the Tigers outlasted host Brattleboro, 4-3.
For sure, there are several reasons for the Tigers’ greater success. A long overdue move from Division I to less-competitive D-II is one, the addition of talented younger players is another, and their continued improvement as hockey players is also significant.
Regardless, even if the Tigers enjoyed their ice time a year ago, they are finding this year more fun, said Hescock, a tri-captain who scored seven goals last week.
“Oh, my gosh. It’s so different,” Hescock said. “It’s a totally different atmosphere for the whole game. We lost so many, and this year we’re winning. It’s so exciting, and it builds everyone’s confidence a lot.”
Howlett and Leeds said the move to D-II is not the only reason for the better record. They believe the Tigers have worked on their individual skills and skating and are learning to execute plays and work better together. And there is simply more talent.
“Before we had two or three really outstanding players, now we have five or six or seven,” Leeds said.
And Howlett said not to discount the team’s chemistry.
“Really, all the way down the roster everybody’s playing very well together. Linemates are really looking for each other and anticipating each other,” he said.
Although the Wasps, a team with a half-dozen novices, didn’t pose much of a challenge, the Tigers’ improved skating and puck movement was evident.
Right from the start, they gave Koetsier a workout — she made a dozen stops in the first period before Hescock (four goals) stuffed home her own rebound at 11:50 after taking a centering pass from sophomore linemate Maria Ploof (two goals, two assists).
Early on, Koetsier denied Hescock four times, twice on breakaways; stopped senior Saige Twombly from close range; stopped a screened shot from sophomore Laura Galenkamp; and stopped a Ploof breakaway and her backhander from the slot. After Hescock scored, Koetsier made a pad save on Twombly that was first ruled a goal, and thwarted another Hescock breakaway. Koetsier finished the period with 18 saves, and it was 1-0.
In the second period the Tigers scored four times on 24 shots. After Koetsier made an outrageous save on sophomore defender Heather Ploof’s screened shot from the left point, Ploof shortly afterward threw a soft pass toward the net that eluded three skaters and Koetsier and made it 2-0 at 2:18. Freshman Taylor Becker assisted the play.
At 5:17, Maria Ploof skated in on Koetsier from the left-wing circle. The goalie stopped Ploof’s first bid, but she lifted the rebound home. At 11:58. Hescock finally solved Koetsier on a breakaway, and at 14:29, Hescock tucked in a feed from senior defender Kayla Quesnel-Cousino.
In the fourth, Hescock one-timed home a centering pass from Maria Ploof, and Ploof got her second score on a rebound after Koetsier stopped three point-blank shots.
At the other end, Tiger defenders Quesnel-Cousino, Heather Ploof, Becker, Elise Biette and Grace Foshay allowed just 11 shots on sophomore goalie Ashley Howlett, who earned her first shutout of the winter. Howlett made nice stops on a two-on-one break late in the first period and on a tricky deflection midway through the second period, and used her blocker to knock away Hillary List’s bid from the right-wing circle early in the third.
Against Brattleboro, Hescock scored a hat trick, Maria Ploof set up Boudah’s late game-winner, Twombly and Becker had assists; and sophomore Maria Ploof set up Boudah’s game-winner, and Howlett had 13 saves, six fewer than Brattleboro goalie Bri Snow.
Teams like Montpelier, U-32 and Rutland, which visits MUHS on Monday, will challenge the Tigers this winter. But Hescock said the team has newfound confidence.
“I think there are some tough teams,” she said. “But I think we can win if we have our A game on.”