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The year in sports, part 1: 2009 brought area drama, achievement

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Posted on December 23, 2009 |
By Andy Kirkaldy



web_softballpiggyback.jpg
OV SENIOR SAM Hansen hitches a ride from Coach Pattie Candon after the Otters won the D-II softball crown. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

ADDISON COUNTY — The year 2009 saw Otters win the area’s only team title, Tigers migrate to Division II, Panthers cement their national emergence in a new sport, and Eagles reach their traditional aerie in Centennial Field only to be evicted. A prominent local team not named after a member of the animal kingdom also made news, as a squadron of Commodores sailed back to Barre before being sunk by Cosmos.

Meanwhile, many local groups accustomed to contending for and often winning championships settled just for the contending part: Middlebury College lacrosse and ice hockey and Middlebury Union High School girls’ lacrosse teams, to name a few, not to mention those baseball Eagles and basketball Commodores.

Still, many local athletes wore laurel wreaths: Otter Valley, Vergennes and MUHS wrestlers won Vermont titles; an MUHS sophomore runner blew away the Division II girls’ cross-country field; two Tiger seniors won D-I track titles; and an Eagle golfer aced out his D-II foes.

And hundreds of local athletes worked hard, played well, had fun, created lifelong friends and made their families proud, beginning in:

JANUARY

2009 started rocking in the VUHS gym when the 2-5 Mount Abraham Union High School boys visited the 7-1 Commodores. And before the usual rowdy, chanting standing-room-only crowd, the Eagles won, 56-50. Hey, when these two hoop teams meet, you never know. It wouldn’t be the last upset involving either team this winter. In fact, the Eagles lost their next two, including at home to a visiting 2-7 OV squad.

The MUHS girls’ basketball team ended up with its best season in several years, 10-10. The key was a dramatic, 45-44, win over defending Division I champion Mount Anthony in January. Late points from Kayla Whittemore and Joey Kelley sealed the win.

Meanwhile, a powerful Middlebury College program rolled to its 10th straight win and was ranked nationally. No, we’re not talking Coach Bill Beaney’s men’s hockey team or Coach Bill Mandigo’s women’s hockey team, although both certainly playing respectably also. Coach Jeff Brown’s men’s hoop team opened its NESCAC schedule with two home wins in January to move to 14-2 and run a winning streak to 10 games. By the end of the month, point guard Ben Rudin hit 1,000 points, and the Panthers were 18-2 and ranked No. 19.

Another hoop player, Castleton State senior and MUHS alum Mary Nienow, reached 1,000 points in her college career.

The MUHS boys’ basketball team was also exceeding expectations, reaching the 10-win mark by mid-month despite an all-new starting lineup. But though those pesky Eagles surprised the Tigers at home to improve to 4-8. Soon afterward, the Commodore boys won their rematch with the Eagles and finished the month at 12-2.

Yes, hockey teams made news, too. Coach Derek Bartlett’s MUHS team was actually a melting pot. Thanks to a series of agreements with other local schools, skaters from OV, Mount Abe and VUHS joined the squad, which finished January at 10-3-3.

FEBRUARY

As February opened, two wrestlers made history at the same dual meet at Brandon: OV senior Jesse Bilodeau won his 144th career match, breaking the year-old OV record held by former teammate Tim Shields, while Tiger senior 215-pound wrestler Kyle Odell earned his 100th win.

The usually reserved MUHS gym got a little — OK, a lot — more raucous than usual for the Tiger boys’ final regular season game, against VUHS. The Tigers needed a win to clinch a home playoff game and got it, 66-63, when Tiger senior Jeff Maier scored eight points in the final minute. The game marked the return to the starting lineup of VUHS junior Logan Williams, injured most of the winter. Williams poured in the first 14 VUHS points and finished with 27.

Then the high school playoffs began. And so did the upsets. In a packed gym, the No. 12 Eagle boys’ basketball team ousted No. 5 MUHS, which cut a nine-point deficit with 2:11 left to one at 0:36, but still lost 53-50. The Eagles bowed out in the next round. The MUHS boys’ hockey team earned the No. 4 seed in D-II at 12-5-2, but lost, 3-2, in overtime in the first round to Woodstock, a team the Tigers had defeated twice by a collective score of 19-5.

The Tiger girls’ basketball team lost as the No. 9 seed in the D-I playoffs, and that meant only the No. 9 girls’ hockey team, entering the postseason at 2-18, won a playoff game for MUHS. The Tigers knocked off host No. 8 Stowe, 3-1, before bowing out to the top seed in the next round.

The Eagle girls’ basketball team finished 11-9 and earned the No. 7 seed. After a solid first-round win over Woodstock to close February, the Eagles ran into undefeated eventual champion Burr & Burton in the next round and were ousted. The No. 8 OV girls also earned a playoff victory at Mill River, but fell to No. 1 Lamoille.

Both Panther hockey teams earned second place in NESCAC. Beaney’s bunch went 14-3-4 and then defeated Hamilton in a first-round match-up, but failed to make it out of the league’s final four and did not earn an at-large bid for the NCAA Division III tournament. Mandigo’s women’s team defeated Williams in a quarterfinal and advanced to the final four.

Brown’s men’s hoop team just kept winning, and another usually mellow gym exploded with noise as the Panthers hosted the NESCAC final four in February’s final two days. The Panthers knocked off Bowdoin by 30 and then Amherst, 77-68, to win the program’s first-ever NESCAC tourney crown before 1,200 happy fans.

And wrestlers won state titles: Bilodeau won by pin in the 171 final, OV sophomore George Mitchell won a 7-3 decision at 125, OV senior Alex Ramage took a 2-1 decision at 140, VUHS senior Bobby Worley won at 152 pounds with the fastest pin recorded in any final, and Odell claimed the 215-pound crown with a 6-4 decision over the top-seeded Mount Anthony wrestler.

But the Commodore boys basketball team did not. After three playoff wins earned them a berth in the Division-II final in Barre, a red-hot No. 4 Springfield team completed a dominant march through the tournament with a 59-31 rout of No. 1 VUHS. The Commodores, led by junior forward Connor Merrill, still finished an outstanding season at 19-5.

MARCH

March opened with more stunning news. Bridgewater State upset the host Panther hoop team, 78-76, in a first-round NCAA Division III playoff game by scoring nine points in the final 43 seconds to wipe out a 74-69 Middlebury lead. The best season in Middlebury history ended at 23-4. One of its best careers, that of Rudin’s, ended as well: He finished at or near the top of the program’s all-time lists in assists, steals and points and was named a second-team all-American.

The Panther women’s hockey team earned the right to host an NCAA game with an upset of NESCAC top seed and host Amherst, 4-3 in overtime. The result snapped the Panthers’ six-game winless streak vs. the Jeffs and gave them the right to host the NCAA final four.

But the Jeffs would have the last laugh. Elmira upset the Panthers, who had to settle for a win in the consolation game and a third-place finish. Amherst then won that program’s first NCAA title.

In March the news broke that former Mount Abe and Addison County American Legion baseball standout Tyler Pelland had decided to hang up his spikes after five years of professional baseball, a career that took him to the top of the Cincinnati Reds minor league system. But shoulder woes that would require major surgery and considerable rehabilitation led to the lefthanded pitcher and Monkton resident’s decision to further his education — which would be paid for under the terms of his contract — rather than gamble on a return to health.

APRIL

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, one might argue as far as county sports, April is the dullest month. By mid-month, high school seasons are just getting under way — if weather permits. Meanwhile, the Panther baseball and softball teams are making most fans jealous by getting tans in some faraway Southern paradise, and a few hardier souls watch the college lacrosse teams run around on their turf fields.

Still, by month’s end, we had learned a few things. One, that it might not be a vintage women’s lacrosse team for Middlebury: A loss to Union was the program’s first-ever to that school, and it left the Panthers at 5-3; at month’s end they were 9-4 and had won a NESCAC quarterfinal.

The Panther men’s lacrosse team fared better: Middlebury finished the month 13-1 and was ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division III and was set to host the NESCAC final four.

The perennially strong Panther men’s tennis team also enjoyed a nice month, finishing at 19-2 entering the NCAA tourney.

The high schools provided some drama, as well, as they swung into action. The Mount Abe baseball team didn’t lose many games last spring, and led VUHS after five innings, 3-2, in a late April game. But the Commodores erupted for a 9-4 win highlighted by Cam Curler’s line-drive grand slam.

MAY

The weather and the action warmed up in May. The women’s lacrosse team pulled off two NCAA wins before bowing out in the quarterfinal round. The Panther men were upset in the NESCAC tourney, but won twice to reach the NCAA semifinal round before being knocked out. The women’s tennis team made at least a brief appearance in the national tourney, while the Panther men’s tennis team hosted and won a regional before being beaten in an NCAA quarterfinal. Not too shabby, overall.

Then the high school teams took center stage. On May 7, the OV softball team ended Lyndon’s four-year, 79-game winning streak with a 3-2 win in Brandon. Senior ace Ashley Sanderson tossed a four-hitter with nine strikeouts and no walks, and hits by Kristy Pinkham, Sam Hansen and Michaela Harrington helped plate the runs. OV improved to 8-1 on the way to a 14-2 regular season and the top seed in D-II. Lyndon dropped to 6-1, and the teams would meet again later.

Another dramatic win by a local nine came on May 26, when the Mount Abe baseball team knocked off Essex, 3-2, behind the complete-game pitching of Ben Orvis, who fanned 10 Hornets. Metro Conference Player of the Year Kyle Kayhart picked up two RBIs, and Adam Pouliot plated another run with an Eagle trademark, a squeeze bunt. The Eagles would go on to win their first Metro crown and clinch the top seed in D-II.

In the final weekend of the regular season and May, lacrosse teams made the news. VUHS defeated St. Johnsbury, 10-6, to clinch the young program’s first winning season. Joe Russett, Gary Grant and Silas Larson paced the attack.

The Tiger boys shook off a midseason slide and walloped Rutland, 14-5, to finish at 10-6 and earn the No. 5 seed in D-I. Devlin Rutherford, Asa Sargent and Cooper Quenneville led the offense.

The Tiger girls needed to avenge an earlier loss to Mount Anthony and overcome an early Patriot lead to earn the No. 2 seed in D-I, and they did that, 14-13, but only when goalie Alex Sears made a last-second stop. Katie Ritter and Joey Kelley combined for half the Tiger goals in the game.

JUNE

June is high school tournament time, and local teams made an impact. In lacrosse, the No. 5 MUHS boys won their first-round game, 14-7, over Burlington, and then knocked off No. 4 Spaulding, 10-7, as Cooper Quenneville scored four times. But No. 1 South Burlington derailed the Tigers in the semis on the way to the Rebels’ first lax title.

The VUHS boys met OV in the lacrosse playoffs for the second straight season and again prevailed, 10-7, despite 20 saves from OV goalie Zach Jepson, as Silas Larson scored three times and assisted two goals. Lamoille ousted VUHS in the next round, but a 9-8 season looked good for the young program.

In girls’ lacrosse, the No. 2 Tigers avenged a regular-season loss to Woodstock by rallying from a 13-11 deficit for a 15-14 win in a quarterfinal. Sisters Liz and Joey Kelley keyed the comeback, and Shelby Laframboise scored the game winner.

But Mount Anthony ousted the defending champion Tigers, 6-4, in a semifinal. MUHS goalie Alex Sears and defenders Kayla Whittemore, Kaitlyn Kirkaldy and Rachel Scholten played well, but the Tigers couldn’t generate a consistent attack and finished the season at 14-5.

In baseball, only Mount Abe posted wins in June, although VUHS played well enough during the season to host a playoff game. The Eagles knocked off MUHS and Burr & Burton easily, and then outlasted Milton, 8-6, to reach the final at Centennial Field as the top seed with a 16-3 record.

Waiting for them was undefeated Lyndon, the team they upset the year before as Ben Orvis outdueled Viking ace Buddy Lamothe. But this year, Lamothe and Lyndon won the battle, 9-0. As well as Metro Player of the Year Kyle Kayhart, senior catcher Dean Butler and Orvis were among the Eagles who had outstanding seasons.

Softball ended up offering the most excitement and surprises. In D-I, the No. 7 Tigers held serve with a 2-1 win over No. 10 Hartford in the first round behind the pitching of Leah Gipson and a two-out, two-run Kali Trautwein single. MUHS then stunned perennial power and second-seeded BFA-St. Albans, 2-0, in the next round. Gipson tossed a shutout, Mallory James singled home Mattea Bagley, and Vicky Davio stole home. But No. 11 Mount Anthony upset the Tigers in a semi, 6-2.

Mount Abe, the No. 5 seed in D-II, won its opening round game and then hosted VUHS, which had not won a playoff game in eight years. But in the first round the No. 13 Commodores stunned No. 4 Mill River, 9-4, as Tabby Danyow had a pair of hits and Devon Lane pitched well. The 5-13 Commodores then surprised the 11-7 Eagles, 4-3, as VUHS hurler Katie Curler fanned 12 and allowed three hits.

But waiting next for VUHS and first-year coach Mike Sullivan was 16-1 OV and Ashley “Big Red” Sanderson. The Commodores’ Cinderella story ended in the semis with a 9-1 loss in which Sanderson struck out 10 in a two-hit effort.

All that was left for OV was a rematch with Lyndon in the D-II final.

But before that came about, the state golf tournament was held. Mount Abe junior Greg Scott won the D-II individual championship by firing a 78, just two shots better than teammate Mike Sundstrom, who finished tied for third. In D-I, MUHS senior Walker Allen carded a 74, good for fourth place.

Also, in lacrosse news, the Vermont Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association honored former MUHS great and recent Boston University graduate Sarah Dalton as the VSSA Female Athlete of the Year. Dalton was the leading NCAA D-I women’s lacrosse scorer in the nation and in the BU program’s history.

And before OV softball took the field in the championship, two MUHS track athletes also won D-I titles. Senior Ethan Dickinson capped a strong season by winning at 400 meters, and senior Dylan Bruce did likewise in the pole vault. In D-II, Cassie Marion and Isiah Moore placed for Mount Abe in multiple events.

Finally, the Otters took the field against the Lyndon softball juggernaut, winner of four straight D-II titles. It wouldn’t be five, as OV scored three times in the sixth to take a 3-0 lead and held on for a 3-2 win. Sanderson tossed a five-hitter, fanning seven and working out of trouble in the early innings. Second basemen Sam Hansen was the defensive star and scored the tie-breaking run. Michaela Harrington also scored, and Tamara Bishop singled home a run as the Otters gave the area its only team title of 2009.

The second half of area sports in 2009 will be wrapped up in our Dec. 31 edition next week. Due to a computer glitch we could not include photos of sporting events from last winter.

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