MIDDLEBURY — Although the Middlebury Union High School girls’ lacrosse team perennially contends for the Division I title and reached the final a year ago, the Tigers entered this year with questions to answer.
A new coach, Kelley Higgins, brought an extensive experience guiding field hockey teams, including the successful Tiger program, but a more limited background in lacrosse. And seven starters are gone from the 2010 finalists, including the entire starting defense and attack.
Well, so far, so good.
Monday’s 14-8 win at home over 2010 Division II champion Burr & Burton pushed the Tigers to 3-0. They are the only undefeated team in D-I, and their wins include an opening overtime decision at South Burlington, the Rebels’ only loss. And the 3-1 Rebels dealt Rutland, at 6-1 the second-place team in D-1, an 11-1 setback.
Many challenges lie in wait: The Tigers play at high-scoring Mount Mansfield (3-1) on Thursday, and host Rutland on Monday. Two games with defending champion Mount Anthony (5-3) also loom down the road, not to mention a rematch with South Burlington.
Still, four-year midfield starter Katie Ritter, a senior captain who sparked MUHS with four goals and an assist on Monday, is optimistic the Tigers will continue to play well. She used a key four-letter word — work — a half-dozen times in a post-game interview to explain why she feels good about this season.
“We work hard every day, and we’re dedicated. And we’re always looking to get better, and I think that’s the most important thing,” Ritter said. “In practice we work hard. Our coaches are pushing us to work hard, and that’s going to help us.”
In the back, junior Maria Ploof (10 saves on Monday) took over in goal after sharing the job a year ago. On defense senior Anjelica Swinhart was a reserve last spring, and juniors Eva Pratt (who played well on Monday) and Maya Scaramucci have stepped in with no varsity defensive experience. The unit has allowed just eight goals a game.
Up front, junior Hannah Quinn is the only attacker with experience. Junior Eliza Mayer, sophomore Lily Rosenberg and freshmen Emily Robinson, Kiera Kirkaldy and Julia Cluss have all taken turns on attack. The latter five all scored on Monday, while Quinn led the unit in collecting ground balls.
“The people who have had to fill those roles from the seniors who graduated last year have really stepped it up, and that’s helped us a lot,” Ritter said.
The veterans at midfield remain the team’s strength: Ritter, senior co-captain Liz Kelley (a goal and an assist Monday), junior Chrissy Ritter (three goals), and junior Brandi Whittemore (a goal and an assist during a strong all-around effort. The team’s fourth freshman, Olivia Carpenter, is the fifth midfielder.
The Ritters and Kelley helped the Tigers take a 7-0 lead in the first 13:08. Katie Ritter scored three of her four goals, one set up by Kelley; Chrissy Ritter scored twice; Rosenberg converted a free position for her first varsity goal; and Kelley capped the early surge with a solo effort at 11:52.
The Tigers went a little flat after that, and despite Ploof’s three first-half saves, the Bulldogs put some pressure on and converted three free positions, two by Brooke Sabol and one by Sawyer DeVries.
With 1:31 gone in the second half, DeVries converted another free position, and it was a three-goal game.
Thirty seconds later, Ploof came up big, stopping Kate Montague’s free position and then a rebound bid.
Finally, at 20:29, Whittemore snapped a 15:39 scoreless span for MUHS, powering past a defender from behind the cage to make it 8-4. At 16:07, Kirkaldy converted a Whittemore feed in transition, and it was 9-4. The Tigers won the draw, and 11 seconds later Katie Ritter set up Robinson on the break, and at 10-4 the lead looked safer.
Ritter said the Tigers knew they had to get back to work.
“We started off strong. Our offense looked good. We were moving the ball well up the field in transition,” Ritter said. “And then we went into a little bit of a lull, and we knew we needed to pick it up.”
Down the stretch, each Ritter tacked on another goal, and Mayer and Cluss added their first varsity scores. Sabol scored two more, Lauren Miskovsky and DeVries added one each, and Kelsey Towslee totaled six saves for the Bulldogs, whose 2-4 record is misleading: They split two games with Mount Anthony, and their other losses were to Rutland and MUHS.
Katie Ritter said she knows it’s early, but likes what she sees so far of the Tigers’ chemistry and dedication.
“I see a ton of potential in this team,” she said. “We have a great work ethic, and I think that’s going to take us a long way.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.